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.

Suicide Squad: The Harley Quinn show

We all knew it would work, didn’t we? Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. Arguably, there’s never been a better match of actor and character in a superhero movie (except maybe Jack Nicholson as The Joker, but that was decades ago).

And with the addition of Will Smith – reuniting them after their pairing in con film Focus – you know the lion’s share of scenes will have gone to those two. Not that that’s a bad thing. But when watching David Ayer’s Suicide Squad I did wonder – more than once – what the rest of the cast were actually doing there, other than to make up the numbers.

It’s a bit like the XMen films. You have so many characters that giving them all something interesting to do is a tall order. Although maybe that’s just an excuse and the filmmakers should really just try that bit harder. (After all, we’ve had a few great XMen films in the past.)

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But to backtrack, in case you’ve not seen the trailer or know anything about superhero films or have any idea what the Suicide Squad is, let’s recap.

‘They’re bad guys. The worst of the worst’, says Viola Davis’ shady Government official Amanda Waller. For it is she that pulls the strings of the squad, getting them to do her evil bidding. And she’s as cold as ice with it, sending them into situations where you wouldn’t want to risk your precious heroes like Batman and The Flash.

Essentially, they’re canaries down the coal mine and very much on the expendable side. Bad guys forced to do good. For example there’s a Hispanic gangster fire guy (Jay Hernandez), a crocodile (Addiwale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), an Aussie boomerang-throwing burglar (Jai Courtney), a master assassin with funky dress sense (Will Smith) and everyone’s favourite deranged-by-the-Joker psychiatrist (Margot Robbie). Plus some other walking clichés but I’ve given up listing them, you’ll just have to check IMDb.

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They’re tasked with rescuing someone from the remnants of a city that an ancient – and rather pissed off – witch called Enchantress (Cara Delivigne) has torn to shreds in a sort of Viggo the Carpathian from Ghostbusters kind of way. Plot wise, that’s kind of it. So somehow we have a film in which lots happens, but also, bafflingly, very little at all.

Furthermore, there’s been talk online of how the film starts about three times. Or that it takes maybe 20 minutes to get into the actual story. Either way, you could argue that – if you’re going to be tough to please like me – it never really does get going. Robbie does her best to lighten things up but it often feels like she’s in a different movie to everyone else.

Particularly Joel Kinnaman’s dour Colonel Rick Flag; who leads the group in such a gruff manner it’s as if he sucks the life out of scenes simply by turning up; like some sort of Dementor in army fatigues.

SUICIDE SQUAD

Then there’s the Joker. One of the best comic book villians ever to grace the screen and first made famous by Jack Nicolson, then updated for the modern age by the genius of Heath Ledger (the latter gaining a posthumous Oscar in the wake of his death).

So now we have Jared Leto giving us his take, going all method during the shoot; with stories of him sending dead rats to cast members there’s no doubt he got into character for the role. And really, this just added fuel to the fire getting us all revved up. His Joker would be something special. Even perhaps, whisper it, the best yet?

And then… what did we get? A couple of scenes here and there but largely diddly squat. Nada. Zip. Zilch. David Ayer took this great character and frittered him away on some meaningless encounters, giving Leto precious little to work with. But perhaps I am missing the point? Was this not a Joker movie? Is he not the biggest bad guy in the film? If not, then why bother to hype him up at all?

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If you’re going to focus on Smith and Robbie’s characters then why not give them some sort of combined backstory and shared history the actors can sink their teeth into? Play up to their chemistry. Or if you’re going to do a Joker and Harley Quinn film, do that. With the rest of the squad as peripheral characters. Maybe Deadshot could have taken it upon himself to free Harley from the Joker’s influence?

I get that screenwriting is a monumentally challenging thing to get into any semblance of something coherent that’ll engage audiences. But surely if in doubt, KISS right? Keep it simple, stupid.

So structurally this film is somewhat all over the place and feels thrown together in a way which slightly vexes me. And it gives the audience very little with which to identify in terms of characters. Granted, ensemble movies are a tricky beast at the best of times and, whilst I’m loathe to use Marvel as a blueprint, they just do it so much better.

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Whether bringing together established characters (Avengers) or introducing entirely new ones (Guardians of the Galaxy) they make it seem much more seamless and, crucially, make us care about the characters involved.

So, anywho. Before it seems like I’m too down on this whole movie, let’s put things in perspective. There were some good performances to be had (Robbie, Smith, Davis, Leto) and David Ayer did a passable job of setting up the squad and it’s a reasonable enough Friday night popcorn type of watch. So there’s that. And it also seems to have done well enough to suggest a sequel isn’t going to be a big ask of the studio.

So for the second one I really hope they come up with a better structure and more credible story for the squad. Stick Smith and Robbie front and centre and, for God’s sake, keep the tone as far away from dark and gritty as possible. DC has more than enough of that going around and superhero films are supposed to be fun. Aren’t they?

Focus: Smith and Robbie zing but the plot falls flat

Will Smith is a movie star. An A-lister. Granted he’s been off his game lately, but he’s not done with the box office yet. And Margot Robbie is a rising talent and undeniably one of the most beautiful actresses working today. Sticking the two of them together in a caper about con artists seems like a good idea on paper. They can both hold the screen and chances are they’ll have good chemistry. If you can sense a but coming that’s because there is – and more than one in fact.

Films about conning are notoriously tricky these days, probably because as an audience we’ve seen it all before and this one goes to great lengths to spell out every con just in case you miss anything. ‘Remember, it’s all about focus’, Smith’s legendary con artist Nicky explains, showing raw talent Jess (Robbie) how it’s done in an early scene. ‘You focus here whilst I steal from here’, he teaches her as they dance round each other. She’s hooked. Talk about smooth criminal.

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With this sophisticated, knowledgeable guy and the raw, sassy girl you’ve got a tale that’s been told plenty of times before – often in a better way too. The Oceans films spring to mind, as does Confidence, a lesser known one with Ed Burns, Rachel Weisz and Dustin Hoffman. Maybe the film is called Focus because our focus is drawn towards thinking this is about conning when actually that’s a backdrop and the filmmakers are more interested in the romance to drive the whole thing along. In that sense also reminds me of Mr & Mrs Smith and Out of Sight.

Plot wise it’s fairly light. Maybe light is the wrong word, predictable or pedestrian is more on the money. What we have is guy meets girl, guy teaches girl a few things and cuts her loose (not before falling for her). Guy meets girl again on a job, she causes him to lose ‘focus’ and things don’t go to plan.

Sound familiar?

There’s nothing wrong with telling the same story again, but you’ve got to put a new spin on it. Here, writer-directors John Requa and Glenn Ficarra (who last gave us Crazy Stupid Love in 2011) don’t really push the envelope at all. You’ve got Will Smith as your lead, test his mettle. His character, Nicky, is supposed to be a legendary con artist yet the situations he finds himself in never feel that dangerous or mentally challenging. What he needed was a proper adversary, perhaps some other criminal who he’s wronged in the past or stolen his girl… or something.

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What he’s given comes in the film’s final third in the shape of the owner of a racing car team played by Rodrigo Santoro. He’s far too vanilla for a bad guy, he turns up too late in the movie, and consequently feels incidental to the whole thing. Maybe it should have just turned into a game of one-upmanship, with Nicky and Jess conning and out conning each other in a sort of twisty, seductive criminal dance.

That would have been a good movie to see. But we didn’t get that. What we got was a fairly satisfactory – but not groundbreaking – tale with some nice performances from the two leads, but in a film you’ll have all but forgotten five minutes out of the cinema.

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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Trailer park: Focus, Mad Max, Ex Machina

As 2014 draws to a close I thought a quick look ahead to three rather exciting films out next year wouldn’t be amiss. (Obviously, there’s lots more, but for these little trailer park breakdowns, three is the magic number.)

Focus (In cinemas February 2015)
Will Smith and Margot Robbie (her from The Wolf of Wall Street) star in this rom-com-con, as it’s a film about a con artist who falls for his hot protégé. Based on the trailer, Robbie looks to be giving Amber Heard a run for her money in the old school Hollywood glamour stakes.

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Ex Machina (In cinemas April 2015)
Written and directed by Alex Garland (making his debut as a director) this films tells the story of a computer coder (Domhnall Gleeson) who thinks he’s won a chance to stay at the house of his CEO for a week, but is actually participating in an experiment involving artificial intelligence (namely, Alicia Vikander’s character).

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Mad Max: Fury Road (In cinemas May 2015)
Make no mistake, this film is part of a franchise. And there’s been a gap of 30 years between the last film and this one. Originally starring Mel Gibson, we now have Hollywood’s go-to guy for intensity as the lead, Tom Hardy. Charlize Theron is also thrown in for good measure, as the fantastically named Imperator Furiosa.

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Concrete jungle where accents are made of…

On my recent return from a flying visit to New York I found myself thinking about the accent. London is littered with accents but there’s something inherently ‘London’ about them all. I think the same applies to New York, whether it’s Brooklyn or Queens or Manhattan there’s differences to be picked out, but a commonality runs through them all.

As such, for us out-of-towners we think it’s all pretty much the same… A New York accent. And so, with films where an actor is putting on a New York accent we’re left thinking, is that good? Is it believable? Do they sound like a native?

What is a native in cities like New York and London anyway? These places were built on immigration and boast a melting pot of accents and cultures. Still – go with me on this – there’s an common accent to be picked out.

Here’s my pick of two actresses that have given it a darn good go in recent times.

Margot RobbieThe Wolf of Wall Street
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An Aussie with a scant filmography to her name (her stint in TV show Pan Am rather than Neighbours probably got her this gig) yet steps up not only with a convincing accent, but a commanding performance opposite DiCaprio.


Scarlett Johansson
Don Jon
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Born in New York you hope she’d do a good job (she was quoted as saying she knew women like this growing up). She still had to ‘put on’ a certain accent though, and happily delivered, going toe-to-toe with Gordon-Levitt’s Jon in this fizzy tale.

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.