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.

The Revenant: brutal and simple

Fur trappers. Who’d want to be one eh? Having just seen The Revenant I’d say the average life expectancy of those guys couldn’t have been past about 30. And if you encounter tribes of Indians on a regular basis then more like 20.

The film’s shoot has already become the stuff of modern Hollywood legend. Forget Christian Bale losing weight for roles, he wasn’t out in the elements. DiCaprio, as the stories go, properly suffered. And the Academy loves an actor that gets put through the wringer for a role. So much so he seems a dead cert to take the Best Lead Actor Oscar (for which he’s long overdue).

But, ramblings aside, let’s talk about the actual film, inasmuch as we can do avoiding spoilers. Not that there’s much to spoil as it’s a pretty simple tale. We start with Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) hunting in the wilderness somewhere then cut back to camp where the rest of the trappers get viciously set upon by Native American Indians. It’s an astonishing set piece and worth your price of entry alone; as the camera bobs and weaves and ducks and dives, switching from character to character as director Alejandro G. Inarritu introduces us to the key players with the quiet brilliance of a master conductor.

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After they escape they ditch their boat thinking they’ll stand a better chance at survival on foot. Then Glass gets savagely mauled by a bear in yet another overwhelmingly visceral sequence. Somehow, despite the bear being CGI, you feel the weight and primal threat of its presence as it attacks. It’ll have you squirming in your seat with your heart racing.

A little while after that Glass’s men leave him for dead (as he’s practically a corpse) and what follows is a fairly simple survival tale. One of Glass’s fellow trappers, Tom Hardy’s Fitzgerald, is the main antagonist of the movie, and although he tries to get them to abandon Glass at every opportunity, he’s also just trying his best to survive.

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Everyone in this movie, it seems, is just trying to survive. And little wonder, given the landscape. The cast seems to have spent so much time in either snow or freezing water or both, you wonder how they didn’t call mutiny on their director. That said, despite the harsh environment, it’s beautiful to look at, and DP Emmanuel ‘Chivo’ Lubezski just goes from strength to strength as possibly the best in the business right now.

Funnily enough, with most survival movies you’ll sit there happily munching away on your popcorn. With this one I felt guilty just looking at my snacks, let alone opening them. And there’s the trick. We suffer (to a degree) as Glass suffers. The cold environment seems to seep off the screen. Clever filmmakers.

So what I’m saying is, don’t expect to go into this thinking it’s a popcorn movie of any sort. It’s tough and demands your attention. There’s minimal dialogue and a lot of DiCaprio gurning and suffering. But it’s an experience. One that’ll leave you feeling drained and moved afterwards.

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Trailer park: Victor Frankenstein, Joy, The Revenant

Good tidings we bring to you and your, er, fellow cinema fans. Here’s my latest ‘trailer park’ entry, highlighting a few that have caught my eye for films coming up soon.

Victor Frankenstein
Seemingly stealing the style straight from Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock films, here we have James McAvoy’s Dr Frankenstein and Daniel Radcliffe’s Igor in a sort of irreverent buddy movie – with monsters. And Andrew Scott, naturally.

Joy
David O. Russell reunites the dream team of Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Robert de Niro (after Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle) once again for this hugely obvious Oscar grab. That said, it looks really good, and Lawrence looks to be on fine form.

The Revenant
In this film DiCaprio plays a fur trapper left for dead by his hunting party and then hunts them down seeking revenge. With credible Oscar talk this could be DiCaprio’s time to win one. And with Tom Hardy as the bad guy and Alejandro G. Iñárritu directing this promises to be an epic Western survival yarn.

Ladies and fellas: Top 10 performances of 2014

Sometimes a film isn’t that great all the way through, but an individual performance stands out. Sometimes a film is carried along by that performance, by an actor knocking it out the park at the top of their game. And sometimes the film is great all the way through, but it goes up another level when buoyed by a stellar lead performance.

In 2014 there were a fair few of both of these. And in the interests of balance I’ve split them out into the fellas and the ladies. Where do you stand? Any missing you’d like to have seen?

THE LADIES
Rosamund Pike as Amy – Gone Girl
Scarlet Johansson as Laura – Under the Skin
Margot Robbie as Naomi Lapaglia – The Wolf of Wall Street
Jessica Chastain as Murph – Interstellar
Kiera Knightley as Joan Clarke – The Imitation Game

INTERSTELLAR

THE FELLAS
Jake Gyllenhaal as Lou Bloom – Nightcrawler
Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort – The Wolf of Wall Street
Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing – The Imitation Game
Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodroof – Dallas Buyers Club
Iko Uwais as Rama – The Raid 2

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The Wolf of Wall Street: Scorsese and DiCaprio take greed is good to another level

we-saw-wolf-of-wall-street-with-a-bunch-of-wall-street-dudes-and-it-was-disturbingHead to a bar. Order a shot of tequila. Chuck some tabasco in it, some pepper, maybe some lighter fluid. Open one eye wide and shoot the shot straight into your eyeball. The experience you’ll have is nothing like watching this film, but it’s the best I can do and gets you in the right mindset for the madness.

What this film is, let’s be honest, is an insane, orgasmic orgy of debauchery; a heady rush of excess and depravity. This is mainlining pure DiCaprio and Scorsese straight into your bloodstream – and within the first few seconds you’re hooked.

Charting the life of young stockbroker, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) in the late ’80s/early ’90s – with a smart screenplay by Terence Winter – it’s been described, aptly, as ‘Goodfellas on steroids’. Indeed, near the start of the film to set the scene Belfort frequently jonah-hill-leonardo-dicaprio-the-wolf-of-wall-street-600x400directly addresses the camera in much the way Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill did in 1990. There’s drugs, money, gambling, women, more drugs. And those pesky chaps at the FBI of course, trying to ruin everyone’s fun.

However, instead of gangsters here we get stockbrokers – the modern white collar equivalent. And, in the way that Goodfellas is perhaps dominated by moments of violence, The Wolf of Wall Street, more often than not, gives way to comedy. I mean, who has a genuine business meeting about the best way to toss a dwarf at a dartboard?

To properly portray the reprehensible Jordan Belfort you need a man like DiCaprio who oozes charisma. A man whose screen presence is unquestionable: the way his wolf pit of brokers hang on his every word is a sight to see. In one scene, taking a leaf from his mentor’s notebook (the rascally Matthew McConaughey, who else?), he has his entire sales force thumping their chests, like some sort of tribe.

???????????????????????Belfort is shocking in every sense, yet mesmerising. Almost to the point that you’re rooting for him to make it and come good before he falls foul of the feds. Scorsese treads a fine line here but, to be honest, we all know Belfort isn’t going to have a happy ending. He’s too arrogant, too sure of himself, too full of drugs to do anything but keep going.

And part of the thrill here is letting Scorsese and DiCaprio take us on that journey. Never have three hours of drugs, hookers and madness looked so much fun. (Your office on Monday morning will seem like a tomb in comparison.) Obviously the film is a cautionary tale, a nod to the excesses that ultimately led to the current financial crisis but… like in the film, before we get all technical, all you need to know is that what these guys were doing was bad. But boy, how did bad end up looking so good?

DiCaprio carries the movie along like a man possessed, but the supporting cast were also impressive. Newcomer 23-year-old Australian Margot Robbie was perfectly cast as Belfort’s wife, Naomi.THE WOLF OF WALL STREET Looking like a cross between Olivia Wilde and Cameron Diaz, she played her part like a seasoned pro. No doubt we’ll be seeing a lot more of her in the near future (she’s rumoured to be Jane to Alexander Skarsgard’s Tarzan in an upcoming film of the same name. She’s also apparently replaced Amanda Seyfried as the lead in a forthcoming sci-fi flick Z for Zachariah).

And, along with the wife let’s not forget Belfort’s trusty best friend, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill). Seems he’s come a long way since the days of Superbad in 2007, with Moneyball (2011) and a smart remake of 21 Jump Street (2012) providing a perfect platform for him to leap headfirst into a Scorsese movie. And leap he did. You wonder just how wild Belfort would have been without Azoff by his side, egging him on. In an early scene where the two haven’t been friends for long, ludesDonnie says he has a gift for Belfort – this turns out to be smoking crack in the middle of the day.

And Hill plays him wonderfully. You almost feel DiCaprio had to up his comedy game to keep up with Hill, but that often made for some truly hilarious moments. Without spoiling it, there’s numerous scenes where the pair do one too many ‘ludes’ aka quaaludes (a pill – now no longer in production surprisingly – that robs you of your motor skills), which left them – how shall we say – without the ability to function in pretty much all senses of the word.

It’s not surprising that this film is up for a stack of awards. Banker bashing and morals aside, what it is – as a cinema experience – is pure hedonistic fun. This is Scorsese with his hair down and the wind in his sails. All we can do is hang on and enjoy the ride.

Take your ass back to the trailer park

jennifer lawrence american hustleBun pun intended, as the title in this case refers to a little vignette of trailers for upcoming films that, to me, look amazing. So I’d like to share them with you. Looks like the rest of the year promises much in terms of movies that stir our soul and entertain. Will they deliver?

American Hustle (2013)

David O. Russell is going from strength to strength. What with The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, this almost feels like a reunion: bringing together Christian Bale and Amy Adams from the former and Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro from the latter; plus the excellent Jeremy Renner, in this ’70s set tale based on the FBI Abscam operation.


The Counselor
(2013)

Reuniting Penelope Cruz with Cameron Diaz (from their time on Vanilla Sky) and Javier Bardem (Vicky Christina Barcelona), along with Brad Pitt and the mighty Michael Fassbender, this film has a killer cast. Ridley Scott takes the helm as director, with an original screenplay from Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men), delving into the world of greedy lawyers and drug trafficking.


The Dirties
(2013)

Described by filmmaker Kevin Smith as ‘the most important film you will see all year’, a fresh, compelling, semi-comic take on bullying. Largely improvised in terms of script by the two leads, one of which (Matthew Johnson) is a recent graduate from York University film school. Impressive stuff and worth your time. Although likely to only be available in a limited number of screens across the country. Seek it out.


The Wolf Of Wall Street
(2013)

Martin Scorsese is cinema. Indeed, he’s one of its greatest living directors. That’s a fact. This film marks the latest in an ever-growing list of outstanding collaborations he’s had with Leonardo DiCaprio in recent years. It tells the tale of corrupt New York stockbroker Jordan Belfort and, along with DiCaprio, features the talented Jonah Hill as well as a man in the midst of a renaissance, Matthew McConaughey.


Anchorman 2
(2013)
So…the legend of Ron Burgandy lives on. Big question is, was the first film lightning in a bottle? Steve Carrell is a much bigger star now, will he unbalance the group dynamic? And more importantly, will this film give us more of the same or take Ron and the team to places new? Ideally we’d want both. Pleasingly the trailer looks to provide just that, with Ron and team now in the ’80s, looking to re-form the team with a 24-hour news channel.


There’s obviously a lot more films with great trailers I’d like to talk about, but I’ll stop here. Ok, maybe just a quick mention of some. Hunger Games: Catching Fire looks really good and gives us yet more of the beautiful Jennifer Lawrence this year, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug looks epic and intense and sees Peter Jackson really get into his stride. Captain Phillips with Tom Hanks and directed by Paul Greengrass looks to be a thoroughly engrossing tale, and finally, How to Train Your Dragon 2 sees Hiccup and Toothless return in what could potentially be another sweet and uplifting tale. There’s loads more but, as Shrek says, ‘That’ll do donkey, that’ll do.’

On my mind… Leonardo DiCaprio

With The Great Gatsby just out and The Wolf of Wall Street on the way, it got me thinking about the career of the lead in both; one Leonardo DiCaprio.

kid quick deadTalk about an impressive CV. Since the early ’90s, he’s dazzled us with a wide range of performances across numerous genres. His filmography reads like a cinephiles ‘best films of the last 20 years’ collection.

And as such I’d like to respectfully nod to his performances that have not only stood out but also stood the test of time. Therefore let’s commence with the first in a series of ‘cinematic living legend’ posts, paying tribute to my favourite roles and performances from actors that just keep on getting better and better.

  • KidThe Quick and the Dead (1995)
    Young, cocky, but with undeniable screen presence in Sam Raimi’s western, little Leo comfortably held the screen alongside big names: Gene Hackman, Russell Crowe and Sharon Stone.
  • Jim CarrollThe Basketball Diaries (1995)
    His first performance that truly blew me away. When this came out I was 13 and loved basketball. Admittedly the gradual descent into drugs and sleeping rough on the streets was something to which I couldn’t as readily relate.
  • frankcatchmeifyoucanFrank Abagnale JrCatch Me If You Can (2002)
    With Gangs out quite soon after, this was an impressive year for Leo. This time going toe-to-toe with Tom Hanks with Spielberg at the helm. Bit of a dream partnership resulting in a fantastic performance and movie.
  • Amsterdam VallonGangs of New York (2002)
    Whilst DiCaprio’s star was flying high by this point, it was never going to be easy going up against a true heavyweight of cinema in Daniel Day Lewis. Nonetheless, his performance as Amsterdam was highly watchable.
  • Howard HughesThe Aviator (2004)
    A consummate and wholly engrossing performance at the top of his game. He got Hughes’s mannerisms and tics spot on. Watch this original footage of Hughes then compare it to Leo’s similar scene – a master at work.
  • Billy Costigan JrThe Departed (2006)
    This marked his third collaboration with Scorsese and – for the pair of them – their most profitable partnership to date. An impressively raw and aggressive performance befitting a cop mentally unravelling whilst undercover as a gangster.
  • blooddiamondDanny ArcherBlood Diamond (2006)
    Often overlooked, yet well received critically and commercially, Ed Zwick’s diamond smuggling war film not only showed DiCaprio in a more mature light with a commanding performance, but was an engaging action tale too.
  • Teddy DanielsShutter Island (2010)
    Based on a Dennis Lehane novel, this psycho-thriller saw Scorsese direct Leo again and come up trumps. I’ve heard this described as a B-movie with an A-list director and star. Unfair and unjust – it’s genuinely spooky and thrilling.
  • CobbInception (2010)
    Another bumper year following Shutter Island, helping DiCaprio tick another ‘greatest living director I’ve worked with’ off his list in Christopher Nolan. du-ac-000125_lgQuite a restrained, nuanced and tender performance, possibly a career best.
  • Calvin CandieDjango Unchained (2012)
    Sadistic, charming, brutal with a god complex – the first time Leo has really had the chance to play a villain and he lapped it up. Tarantino at the helm was no doubt a draw, but his performance, whilst unsettling, was truly mesmerising.