Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: Tarantino’s swansong

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is the ninth film by Quentin Tarantino – and it’s one you’d better make sure you watch because he’s only making one more and that’s it, he’s done. His legacy of ten films will be there for us to watch but no more will be made, verily the movie gods have spoken (until he gets bored and comes out of retirement).

Now this used to make me sad, but in recent years it’s bothered me less. With each film he releases I end up enjoying them in parts, but don’t come out of the cinema fired up the way I used to – perhaps not since Kill Bill have I been blown away by one of his films. Yes, his stories all have had standout scenes and moments, but they just haven’t engaged me scene for scene the way his early ones did. His great vengeance and furious anger has dissapated.

The problem lies in the edit

Since his editor, Sally Menke, died in 2010 (she edited all of his films up until Inglorious Basterds) his storytelling has never been as tight. Legendary director Peter Bogdanovich was reportedly so good because he inherently understood the editing process; indeed, he was a brilliant editor in his own right. This is something Tarantino lacks and no one is strong enough to stand up to him in this regard, be it an editor or a producer.

As a result Once Upon a Time in Hollywood clocks in at 2 hours 45 minutes. If you add trailers we’re talking 3 hours plus – and this is the case every time you see one of his films these days. Add to this that I’ve read recently he wants to release an even longer version. If this doesn’t tell us he completely believes his own hype, then I don’t know what does.

Once upon a time…

Edit aside, the story here is an interesting one. It focuses on TV leading man Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), an actor whose star power is fading. A man trying to revive his career, but in general only has his stunt man and best friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) in his corner, supporting his choices and acting as kind of a big brother. Cliff drives Rick around trying to keep him on the straight and narrow. They prop each other up and the dynamic between these two alpha males of Hollywood is the beating heart of this story.

Pitt is all easygoing charm, much like his character Rusty in Ocean’s Eleven. DiCaprio is tense, twitchy and unhinged, drawing on his characters from Wolf of Wall Street, Shutter Island and a host of others. It’s a delightful pairing and their chemistry sings in each scene. You just want to spend time watching them hang out and shoot the breeze.

A love letter to Sharon

Ahead of the film’s release many expected this story to focus on Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and the days leading up to her murder, but it doesn’t. The slight of hand Tarantino has played with the film’s marketing has frustrated some who have written about feeling cheated. They’ve been given minimal Tate (and therefore minimal Robbie). Yes, she’s a presence throughout, but her story is only very loosely connected to Dalton’s, which is the main one we follow.

Tarantino has written about how he just wanted to spend time with her, celebrating Tate as a person and an artist. This comes across, but is does feel like a waste of Robbie and we still don’t hugely get to know Tate as a person from this film. Robbie is an Oscar-winner and could have brought so much more to the part, had she been given more to work with.

There are things to love

Despite the baggy run time and the strangely languid pace of storytelling there are still many things to love in this film. I mean, you’ve got Pitt, DiCaprio and Robbie as the leads – three beautiful humans and all powerhouse actors. Pitt’s laidback charisma shines through in every scene. DiCaprio has played a bad guy for Tarantino before in Django Unchained and, in a sequence in this film, he plays the bad guy again, but not in the way you might think. It’s rather inspired. People forget how good he is at comedy.

And Robbie, whilst not having a great deal to do, drifts through the film as perhaps a symbol of innocence, beauty and hope for the future. It’s a joy to watch her dance and smile on screen. I just wish she had been more integral to the A plot story.

So, all in all, this film for me sits about mid-teir Tarantino. It looks beautiful and there were a few standout scenes and moments, but the issue I had was, like his last three, it’s overlong and drifts rather than engages me in the story and the characters.

Maybe some day someone will release a tighter edit of this film. I’d get behind that. In the meantime we have one more to go, I for one am most curious about what his final film will be. I hope he burns out rather than fades away as a director.

Has Colin Farrell lost his way?

london-boulevard-movie-1I watched London Boulevard on TV at the weekend. The best way I can describe it is… You know those times when you’re feeling lonely and your phone buzzes? ‘Ah ha!’ you think, ‘I’ve got a text. Someone loves me’. Your chubby little fingers scramble to bring your device to life; only to discover it’s some automated message about which you couldn’t care less. You’re left feeling deflated, dejected, and slightly used. So there it is. London Boulevard.

On paper it had promise. A good cast: Keira Knightley, Ray Winstone, David Thewlis, Anna Friel and Colin Farrell. Celebrated screenwriter William Monahan (The Departed) was directing although, based on results, perhaps he should stick to writing. To be fair the film is passable, albeit unmemorable. Whilst it’s hardly The Departed (I mean, what is? Before you say it I’m aware of Infernal Affairs) it is still a decent effort for a debut director.

However, Monahan is not on trial here. Back to Farrell.

Since he burst onto the scene with Tigerland (2000) I’d argue he’s done precious little to justify his continued career – bar a few exceptions. Phone Booth (2002) really made me sit up and take notice. phone-booth-2002-01This guy has talent. And then, having shown what he can do, he ducked his head below the parapet for about six years, before catching everyone off guard with a brilliant turn in the darkly comic In Bruges (2008).

There it is! I hadn’t seen Farrell’s comedy chops since Ordinary Decent Criminal (2000). And that was way back in the day, practically Ballykissangel (1998) era where it all began. Now I’m not saying comedy should be his de facto genre of choice. But it would be good to see more of it. That said, Farrell does like to dabble in a variety of genres. Perhaps that’s his problem. What’s his strength? What does he stand for? Now I know actors don’t like to be pigeonholed but… If you were given the task of explaining the type of actor Colin Farrell is, what would you say?

Is he intense? Is he funny? Would you say he’s an A-list pretender punching above his weight? Or is he a true talent? For example, since the action heydays of the ’80s, Hollywood has always been searching round for the next leading action manFilm Title: In Bruges. They’ve toyed with Farrell a few times: Daredevil (2003), S.W.A.T. (2003), Miami Vice (2006), Total Recall (2012). But I just don’t buy it. Again, he’s passable. Solid. Gets the job done. But it’s just not enough. Not nearly enough.

With some actors you can tell, you can sense it. He’s got talent I know it. Detractors would say it’s hidden talent, lurking beneath the surface at best. That still counts. I just don’t know what he needs to bring it out. Not that it’s my job to bring it out, but we all need hope.

As Christopher Walken says in Seven Psychopaths (another passable Farrell film), ‘Dream sequences are for fags, but we all gotta dream, don’t we?’

Whatever happened to Christian Slater?

heathersgunNot sure where this thought came from – one of my many random ones during the day I suppose. Whatever its origins, it’s an issue that needs addressing. Not that I’ll solve anything, but a problem shared is a problem halved, as my Nan likes to say.

Some would say he’s had his day, perhaps that’s true. What I do know is that, for me growing up, vintage Slater in full flow was always a welcome sight. Much like Val Kilmer (another ’80s star perhaps considered washed up), I still feel there’s a lot more mileage there. Putting Kilmer to one side, I’d like to take a look back at Slater’s top performances. Here’s my pick:

  • Heathers (1988)
  • Pump Up The Volume (1990)
  • Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves (1991)
  • True Romance (1993)
  • Interview With The Vampire (1994)

Clearly, 1988-1994 was his heyday, beyond that Hollywood simply didn’t know what to do with him. The world had moved on. Admittedly they tried to mould him into an action star a la Bruce Willis – think Broken Arrow (1996), Hard Rain (1998), Pump_Up_the_Volume_300_Mediumwith the godawful Churchill: The Hollywood Years (2004) being the last roll of the dice.

It’s such a shame. Looking at his best work, Heathers is widely regarded as a cult classic (number 412 on Empire’s 500 greatest movies of all time list), with Slater’s performance being compared to that of a young Jack Nicholson. Pump Up The Volume was arguably more of the same, yet he was a little more grown up, his performance more robust and matured. Robin Hood was a huge commercial success at the time, his Will Scarlett perfectly judged and beautifully balanced to Costner’s somewhat dour Robin Hood.

True Romance stands head and shoulders above the rest of his work, directed by the late, great Tony Scott, armed with one of Tarantino’s first scripts. Slater took the character of Clarence Worley and surpassed expectations. Yes Tarantino had caught him on the upwave of his career, yet he’s never been cooler – delivering line after effortlessly cool line in his cocky, offbeat way. ‘Do I look like a beautiful blonde with big tits and an ass that tastes like French Vanilla ice cream?’

When you simply cannot picture another playing the part, you know the actor in question has truly made the role his own. In a film which included Dennis Hopper, Christoper Walken, Gary Oldman and James Gandolfini (sadly another late, great), trueromancebedSlater – along with Patricia Arquette’s Alabama – acted not only as the driving force, but also the sweet heart and soul of the movie. A classic film and classic performance, thoroughly deserving of its place on my top films of all time list.

Post 1994, the dip in quality and output was not solely down to Hollywood’s inability to cast him correctly. Off-screen, a string of arrests and convictions no doubt played their part in stopping decent scripts landing at his doorstep. That said, maybe (hopefully) that’s all now behind him.

Plus, if there was ever a man that specializes in resurrecting the careers of faded stars, it’s Tarantino. His script for True Romance helped Slater achieve a career high and at present, when his career has never been lower, there simply isn’t a better time to cast one of the quirkiest bad boys of the ’80s and ’90s. Quentin, pick up the phone, you know what to do.

Seven Psychopaths – one psycho too many?

seven-psychopaths streetFours years has passed since Writer/Director Martin McDonagh gave us the critically-acclaimed In Bruges – a film where two hitmen lie low in Belgium after a job goes awry.

The pairing of Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell as gangsters with mismatched feelings at being stuck in aforesaid town provide some brilliantly scripted, darkly comic scenes. With Seven Psychopaths I expected more of the same. Whilst McDonagh does indeed show much magic, he doesn’t quite hit the heights of his feature-length debut. I’ll explain why, but first, the plot.

Out in sunny LA, Irish screenwriter Marty (Colin Farrell) is trying to finish a script entitled Seven Psychopaths. His friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) offers to help, telling him tales of real psychopaths, including dog-napper Hans (Christopher Walken) and gangster Charlie (Woody Harrelson). Things escalate when Billy kidnaps Charlie’s dog for Hans to hold it for ransom.

christopher-walken-seven-psychopathsWhat worked?
McDonagh has an exceptional ear for dialogue – one of the hardest things to achieve as a writer – and uses it in highly inventive and quotable ways. Indeed, he’s been compared to Tarantino in that sense. Plus his efforts here in terms of dialogue are easily as good as In Bruges. Rockwell and Walken in particular, get some juicy lines to sink their teeth into ‘Dream sequences are for fags’ and ‘Gandhi was wrong. Just noone had the balls to say it’.

In terms of great performances Christopher Walken is the most enigmatic and menacing I’ve seen him in ages – perhaps his best since Catch Me If You Can ten years ago – that casual, nonchalant, off-beat delivery of lines, often followed with a psychotic, wolfish grin. Equally scary and funny. Rockwell takes centre-stage as the most wildly unhinged of the group, putting in a commendable performance, but still eclipsed by Walken at his finest.

seven_psychopaths_charlieHarrelson, too, is on top form, veering between menacing gangster and blubbing wreck whenever his dog is concerned. This leaves Farrell to play the straight role, admirably acting with those expansive eyebrows of his – Ronnie Corbett style.

What didn’t?
Whilst Farrell does a fine job, it seems McDonagh has missed the chance to have him flex his comic muscles, as he did so effectively for In Bruges. I assume Sam Rockwell as the obvious funnyman is an easier sell for US audiences, maybe that’s my cynical take.

In some ways, whilst the script is smart and well written, it can come across as too clever for its own good. Almost revelling in self-parody and never missing the chance to have a dig at Hollywood. Whilst this is no bad thing, it can rather quickly get tiresome.

For example, both the film and Marty’s script have little room for female characters, indeed the actresses we do see are highly talented (Abbie Cornish, Gabourey Sidibe) but have next to nothing to do. Something mirrored in Marty’s script, seven-psychopaths-rockwell21which Hans remarks on when suggesting improvements. I’m not sure every time McDonagh becomes aware of a script issue he should resolve it by pointing it out – this might work once but it’s not an eternal ‘get out of jail free’ clause.

I like it. It’s got layers
Those points aside, overall it’s an entertaining, highly quotable, tremendously silly action film that revels in its own shortcomings, as well as being a great vehicle for Walken, Rockwell and Harrelson to flex their psychotic comedy chops. Another to add to your Friday night popcorn list!

Emma Stone – rising star of Hollywood

wichita zombielandThere’s something about Emma Stone, only I cannot pinpoint her appeal. Maybe that’s part of her appeal? The other night I watched The Amazing Spider-Man – the latest franchise reboot – and Stone is great in it. Strong chemistry with Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parker, as you’d expect now they’re dating in real life.

There’s not many young actresses out there that have sublime, comic timing combined with dramatic talent. Stone does in abundance.

Hollywood – an industry always looking for the next bankable star – picked up on this quickly, casting her in a variety of roles; from comedy to action, indie to blockbuster spectacles – make no mistake, Miss Stone’s star is on the rise.

We have take-off
Ever since she broke into the A-list in 2007 as Jules in Superbad, she’s gone from strength to strength. So, too, have the three young, male actors: Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Michael Cera and Jonah Hill – each having starred in some brilliant films in the last few years.

After Superbad, for me, her next effortlessly cool character was Wichita in Ruben Fleischer’s 2009 film, Zombieland. Perfectly cast opposite another actor good at mixing intelligent delivery with sharp, witty, comic lines, Jessie Eisenberg. Admittedly she didn’t have too much to do in this film, but played her part well.

easy_a_emma_stoneMoving into the stratosphere
In 2010, she made a significant step up playing fantastically-named lead character, Olive Penderghast, in comedy Easy A. A super-smart, teen comedy with a killer script. With so many witty, excellent lines, the film seemed tailored with Stone in mind. Indeed, she gained a Golden Globe nomination for her performance.

2011 was also a strong year, she starred in 1960s drama, The Help – a critical and commercial success. She also played opposite Ryan Gosling in another smart rom-com, Crazy, Stupid Love.

No matter what roles she’s cast in or what male actor she’s opposite, Stone just seems to come across so relaxed and natural. Smart, sassy, easygoing, but gives as good as she gets – dare I say it, perfect girlfriend material? Perhaps that’s another part of her appeal, both guys and girls want to hang out with her. She seems fun, likeable and accessible.

emma stone gangster squad ryan goslingGoing supernova
So what’s next? Well, we can look forward to Stone in next year’s crime flick, Gangster Squad. With a really strong cast, this film reunites Stone with Zombieland Director Ruben Fleischer and her Crazy, Stupid Love co-star Ryan Gosling – so expect sparks, drama and Tommy guns!

Also, she’ll most likely have some other films up her sleeve for next year. Furthermore, with the latest Spider-man reboot seen largely as a success, she’ll reprise her role as Gwen in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, scheduled for 2014. So, all in all, things are looking good for Hollywood’s golden girl!

Argo, Affleck and a hard-hitting Hollywood tale

ben affleck

I saw Argo the other night and thought it was great. Really tense throughout, with a few lighter moments to keep from getting too heavy. I said as much to friends and got told rather firmly that the film was historically inaccurate and missed the point.

When I queried this I was told it didn’t fully explore the political situation behind the stand-off between Iran and the US. Whilst this may be true, I’m not sure that matters too much. I’ll explain why. But first, the plot.

The Hollywood option
Set in revolutionary Iran in 1979, the story focuses on six American diplomats forced to flee their embassy and take refuge in the Canadian Ambassador’s house. CIA ex-filtration expert Tony Mendez (Affleck) is brought in to orchestrate their escape, by posing as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a fake sci-fi movie called Argo.

If this were just a film, most people would probably avoid it with a story this ludicrous, but it’s true. This was a proper CIA-sanctioned mission – that’s what makes it so compelling. To return to the comments my friends made about the film’s inaccuracies, Hollywood is known for butchering history – often in a spectacular way. Or twisting it to suit its own means.

Let’s face it, films based on true stories are often going to upset somebody. Maybe they’re inaccurate, maybe they’ve left out key facts. Sometimes the facts don’t make a great film or there are too many characters for the story to be focused enough.

First and foremost, film-makers are trying to make something that’s going to appeal to as many people as possible. The more controversial the material, the more it’s going to be a challenge. Anyway, lesson over, let’s look at the film.

Affleck the A-list….Director
Never thought you’d hear that one right? This is his third film as Director, following the critically-acclaimed Gone Baby Gone and The Town. Both tense, dramatic and well-told stories in a realistic setting.

Also both were set in Boston. So many – including myself – were interested to see if he could deliver the same type of suspenseful film not just in another location, but way outside the US. In a way, the stabilisers are off and he’s wobbling down the street on his own. With a good measure of success.

As well as displaying a deft touch as Director – balancing drama with comedy moments – his acting is also solid and unfussy. Casting himself as lead character Tony Mendez, he comes across as a relatively inscrutable, stoic protagonist – yet has the self-awareness to be the calm centre of the storm, allowing other characters to spin around him.

A cosmic conflagration
He also gets some great performances out of the supporting cast which included: Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Scoot McNairy and Bryan Cranston. argo poster - by conception studiosArkin and Goodman were on top form, poking fun at the inner workings of the Hollywood machine with some great lines. Goodman to Affleck, ‘You want to come to Hollywood and act all fake like a big shot? You’ll fit right in.’

It’s never going to be an easy task to tell a tale this complex, however I think Affleck pulls it off. This is a tense, concise, well-told story, cleverly cut with a satirical nod towards Hollywood, but kept grounded by a level-headed Director who’s going from strength to strength. It may not please everyone from a historical point of view, but it’s a darn good film nonetheless.

Top 10 thinking man’s actresses

Hello my film-loving friends. Today I wish to share with you my list of a thinking man’s top actresses. Ladies that have a certain allure in terms of intelligence, physical beauty, acting prowess and – to avoid using an overused French phrase – an indefinable something.

With each actress I’ve also mentioned the films that first made me fall in love with them. Now you may disagree and say some of these ladies are just a pretty face and nothing else – that’s fine. Hopefully I can state my case and change your mind.

  1. Natalie Portman – Garden State, Closer, V for Vendetta
    It’s no secret I hold this actress in high regard and I’ve previously discussed her top performances in another posting. So I’ll just say she makes my top spot by being a perfect blend of intelligence, beauty and vulnerability – a winning combination.
  2. Eva Green – The Dreamers, Casino Royale, Dark Shadows
    Hypnotic, alluring, sensual – she got her debut in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The DreamersThe Director described her as ‘So beautiful, it’s indecent‘. It’s not the world’s best film in terms of plot, but if you want to truly appreciate the appeal of this actress I highly recommend it.
  3. Anne HathawayLove and Other Drugs
    In this film I’ve mentioned she plays a character who has early stages of Parkinson’s disease. Some of her scenes – particularly in the third act – are heartbreaking and put her firmly in third place. Even without Catwoman in The Dark Knight she’d still be here, she’s that good in this film. If you’ve not seen it here’s a nice little clip.
  4. Amanda SeyfriedChloe, Alpha Dog, Dear John, Jennifer’s Body
    An actress with the biggest, most beautiful eyes in Hollywood. You have to love the internet, a quick search turned up a site dedicated to her eyes! That aside, she’s been in an interesting and varied bunch of films that slowly but surely convinced me of her inclusion. Out of them all I recommend you see Chloe.
  5. amber heardAmber Heard – The Rum Diary
    She’s the kind of actress that exudes an old-school Hollywood charm and mystique. But who am I to say these things you ask? Well if you don’t believe me listen to Johnny Depp – he compared her to Veronica Lake and other old Hollywood beauties, she clearly had quite an impact.
  6. Jennifer LawrenceWinter’s Bone, Silver Linings Playbook
    I heard a story once that Ms Lawrence was walking down the corridor in a Hollywood studio when a bearded guy in a cap stopped her saying ‘Are you the Jennifer Lawrence?’ Turns out this was Steven Spielberg. He’d seen Winter’s Bone and been captivated by her performance, as many of us were seeing her for the first time.
  7. beth albatrossJessica Brown Findlay – Albatross,
    Black Mirror, Misfits, Labyrinth

    If you only know Miss Findlay from Downton Abbey then you’ve missed a trick. I loved her in Albatross, where she plays a bit of a sexy troublemaker, seducing her best friend’s dad. She gives the character warmth, depth and vulnerability – with a sharp, sassy nature to boot.
  8. Marion CotillardPublic Enemies, Inception, Dark Knight Rises
    She won an Oscar for playing Edith Piaf  in La Vie En Rose and I’m excited to see her forthcoming film Rust and Bone, where she plays a killer whale trainer. She was fantastic in Inception – intense, vulnerable and mesmerising. Watch the ‘waiting for a train’ scene.
  9. Mila KunisForgetting Sarah Marshall, Friends with Benefits, Ted
    I struggle with Kunis. She’s still Meg from Family Guy – a problem when she’s clearly stunning and likes to play quite fiesty, yet down-to-earth characters. The perfect girl-next-door, if you happen to live in Hollywood. There’s a rumour she might play Anastasia Steele in the forthcoming Fifty Shades film, an enticing prospect.
  10. Felicity JonesCemetery Junction, Albatross, Like Crazy
    Ah Ms Jones, great up-and-coming actress. She comes across as really sweet and genuine. Like Crazy cleaned up at the Sundance film festival in 2011 with her performance getting compared to Carey Mulligan’s in An Education. Emotional and heartfelt, watch the trailer.

So there’s my list. As ever I was ruthless with the cut – there’s probably a lot more that could have made my top 10 but there you go. I hope you enjoy this selection, until next time.