ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD***** Masterpiece


Without any doubt, this has got to be seen as Tarantino’s masterpiece (aided and abetted by a barnstorming performance by Leonardo Di Caprio). It’s his loving homage to the Hollywood when TV hits such as Rawhide evolved into the Spaghetti Westerns, when Bruce Lee was Kato in the Green Hornet, and Steve McQueen mesmerised the world in The Great Escape.

Tarantino decorates his story with every neon-flashing icon of that past era to give the film an almost documentary feel. These are the touches of reality, there to coax our suspension of disbelief; to suggest that what we’re seeing is a bio pic of a famous – and real- star, while at the same time reminding us that it’s just a story; just a piece of fiction that all happened ”once upon a time…”

The story – a buddy movie at its heart – centres around the symbiotic relationship between Rick Dalton (Di Caprio as a famous TV star on the verge of a nervous breakdown) and his stunt double and alter ego, Cliff (a laconic Brad Pitt), a man who, as he admits, carries Dalton’s “[emotional] load”. It’s a juxtaposition of calm reserve (Pitt) and burning emotion (Di Caprio).

It’s a relationship that, on its most obvious level, allows Tarantino the freedom to explore the tension between pretence (Di Caprio is pretending to be Rick Dalton who pretends to be the typical Hollywood tough guy) and reality (Chris is an actual tough guy; tough enough to beat Bruce Lee).

The reality that is facing Rick is that his star is dimming, his confidence rapidly ebbing away and he’s drinking too much. As is pointed out to him by a sleazy producer (Al Pacino), Rick Dalton, the hero, is being replaced by Rick Dalton the bad guy; not the guy who wins the fights, but the one who loses them. Soon, he’s told, the good guy Rick turned bad guy Rick will become the has been Rick. Just who then is the real Rick Dalton?

The movie’s emotional high point comes as Rick, tutored about authenticity in performance by an innocent child actor (a wonderful Julia Butters, of whom I’m sure we’ll be hearing more), suffers a breakdown and confronts himself in his trailer. The confrontation yields the movie’s central truth: in the same way that art shapes its own reality, Rick must shape his. The actor needs to define himself and be defined by the integrity of his performance and not by the characters he’s pretending to be.

This, in Tarantino’s telling, is the real tragedy of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), here seen as an almost unreal person. She’s a glassy-eyed, ever happy, ditsy blonde who exists, even in her own eyes, only as a projection of a character in a B movie. “Stand next to the poster of your movie” she’s requested by a fan with a camera, “That way people will know who you are”

And the Rick Dalton people will come to remember blossoms in the typical bloody Tarantino catharsis at the end, when Dalton the man channels his tough guy performances in an exorcism of flaming savagery.

Pretence, reality, truth, fiction…Tarantino knits them all together cleverly, delightfully. The themes are serious and ‘heavy’ but it’s a thoroughly enjoyable, fun movie. There is genuine chemistry between Pitt and Di Caprio; there are moments of real tension and menace and the director clearly had great fun ‘gossiping’ about the Hollywood of his invention. Cool guy Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) is seen as a bitchy, spurned (by Tate) lover. Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) is positioned as just another self obsessed, faux tough guy. Dalton’s break out moment comes in a movie being directed by Sam Wanamaker (Nicholas Hammond), the director whose drive gave London its Shakespeare’s Globe theatre. And the story niftily splices in Di Caprio as McQueen into The Great Escape and Robbie into a scene with Dean Martin (in The Wrecking Ball).

It could have been shorter. Some of the scenes of Rick Dalton’s movies drag on unnecessarily long; and the first fifteen minutes seem to drift.

But if anyone has earned to right to a bit of movie magic self indulgence, its Quentin Tarantino. So, for this masterpiece, he certainly deserves to be indulged.

ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD. Dir/Writer: Quentin Tarantino. With: Brad Pitt, Leonardo Di Caprio, Margot Robbie, Margaret Qualley (Novitiate) Julia Butters (Transparent) Mike Moh (Inhumans). Cinematographer: Robert Richardson (The Hateful Eight, World War Z, Django Unchanged), Production designer: Barbara Ling (Batman and Robin)

 

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FAST & FURIOUS: HOBBS & SHAW*** Faster, Furiouser, Foolisher


Count them well. Not simply your blessings (if you’ve been lucky enough to have avoided squandering multiple hours viewing this movie), but the number of heavy thudded blows given and received. I counted just over 2 billion, or the same number of £ our impoverished government will squander on preparing for October’s Brexit self harm.

This count is important as the F&F gang (Stratham, Johnson, Diesel et al) all have contracts that stipulate just how many blows they’re contractually allowed to give and receive No kidding! You see, none of these big bad men are allowed to be seen to have lost a fight to any of the other big bad men (even to Iris Elba who’s a cyborg).

They are after all mega-brands, like Coke. And brands never lose. So while Coke promises its unique kind of burpy happiness, the Diesel/Johnson/Stratham brand promise uber tough guyness. You’ll never be allowed to ever see any of them out for the count. On that you can count.
Just don’t count on this sub brand version of mega brand F&F to be anything less loud and awesomely dumb.

That said, it takes a lot of gutsy coordination (all those big trucks in one place), daredevil stunt-work and really pretty damn never-stopping kinetic directing (from David Leitch) to deliver this much firepower. That has to be admired.

The plot centres on the…do you really care?

If you do, go see it, you’ll love it. Let me count the ways.

If you don’t, then at least it also has Vanessa Kirby, who, once she stopped being Princess Margaret (from The Crown) has whupped Ethan Hunt and who’s emerged as the sexiest badass since Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel and Gabriel Union (the feisty mom from Breaking In) and Daisy Ridley and of so many others.

But who’s counting?

 

FAST 7 FURIOUS: HOBBS & SHAW. Dir: David Leitch (Deadpool 2; Atomic Blonde). With: Jason Stratham, Dwayne Johnson, Idris Elba, Vanessa Kirby, Helen Mirren, Eddie Marsden, Ryan Reynolds (uncredited). Writers (really? It took two of them?): Chris Morgan (Fast and Furious. The whole lot of them), Drew Pearce (Iron Man 3). Cinematographer: Jonathan Sela (Transformers: the Last Knight). Production designer: David Scheunemann (Deadpool 2, Atomic Blonde)

 

Stockholm Syndrome****


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In a world blighted by walls, at last a city blessed with bridges. Copenhagen is a city of fourteen islands, threaded together by a network of bridges

So the water (part lake, part sea) that links them is a very active place. Small craft, large yachts, tourist clippers, dinghies, canoes. You name it. (A long way away from ferocious Viking craft!)

Here’s one beautifully recovered ruin: the Vasa, an early 17th century vessel that sank on its maiden voyage (because they crammed more guns on it than it could balance. Tells you something either about guns or balance)

But marine engines use some of the dirtiest oils. Hmm. Not so eco-Sweden as we’d expect. At least cars are as rare as traffic jams. Instead, you’ll find buses, trams, bicycles…

and these weird electric scooters

Each island (based on our visit of about three!) seems to have its own national character, from the government and historic centre of Gamla Stan to the boring town centre (Norrmalm) to Djurgarden which is one huge museum

And Fjaderholmarna (easily accessible after a 25 minute boat ride) where the Swedes all flock to on a sunny day to inhale their annual limit of vitamin D (and where others can enjoy good food with great views). Swedes seem to come in two sizes: the too many beers for too many years. And goddesses fed on Absolut ambrosia

Even on the mainland you can bump into little beaches like this one. We were in search of lunch and a drink. On a Monday. Spectacular failure.

Easy cruising past the houses that grace the banks of the lake. The Swedish version of social housing. Not.

Copenhagen has a very distinct colour palette. The buildings are pretty much all yellow ochre, with red wooden panels and black roofs. It makes for very easy paint stocking in the shops. It’s indoors where they go wild. Light yellow ochre. Sometimes even white walls. These crazy Swedes

And art is everywhere. Every corner has something that’ll make you stop and wonder just what has this place done to seem to have gotten “it” (the safety, the cleanliness, the nice bars and good food, the social services) so right.

No wonder we’ve got Stockholm syndrome

 

YESTERDAY*** Happy Go Lucky


YESTERDAY IS DANNY Boyle’s loving homage to the glorious brilliance of the Beatles. You can almost hear Boyle’s summons, “Hear ye, hear ye; come all ye too young to know and all ye who have forgotten and all ye still enraptured by them; come ye all and be reminded of the genius of John, Paul, George and Ringo”. And no movie that centers around The Long and Winding Road, Eleanor Rigby, Here Comes the Sun, Yesterday, Hey Jude, Help, Back in the USSR, and on and on, can be anything less than uplifting.

The story focuses on Jack Malik (Hamish Patel from the TV series East Enders), a charmless, failed songwriter and his adoring manager/friend, Ellie Appleton (Lily James: Mama Mia! Here We Go Again, Baby Driver). Their lives of humdrum ordinariness are upended when one night an unexplained worldwide blackout results in him being knocked off his bike even as the world shifted imperceptibly… to a place where the Beatles (along with Coke and cigarettes…go figure) never existed. Only Jack remembers them. And as he covers their music to an appreciative amnesiac world, his life shifts from that of an impoverished nerdy wannabe singer playing to near empty halls of indifferent people to that of pop god.

It’s a rom com story from Richard Curtis (Mama Mia; Here We Go Again, Notting Hill, Love Actually); which makes it thought-free, doltishly obvious (Quite frankly, no heterosexual male with a beating heart can be as oblivious of Ellie’s attractiveness as Jack claims to be) and as light-weight as an airborne butterfly. There’s a spark of an idea that (perhaps unwittingly?) escaped the summer lightness, when the -unanswered- question is posed: “Would the world be a lesser place without the Beatles [Shakespeare…Elliot…da Vinci etc]?”.

There are a few nice touches though: Jack is introduced via a gormless Ed Sheeran (whose acting style is as amateurish as Jack’s singing voice) to the appropriately named, Debra Hammer (a scene stealing Kate McKinnon of Saturday Night Live fame), who got all the best lines. She’s the uber aggressive talent manager for whom Jack is simply a product to be reshaped and marketed (Jack’s suggestions for his first break-out album – The White album or Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band – are all politely turned down in favour of a more marketing savvy title).

And Jack, who would typically be White, is Indian with a Black bff (Joel Fry of You Me and the Apocalypse). It’s a nicely bold choice on Boyle’s part. For Danny Boyle is nothing if not diversity sensitive, as his big 2012 Olympic ceremony demonstrated.

But, essentially, this is a movie that eschews complexity. It feels disappointing and slightly unrewarding as a result. It’s fun, but you leave wishing there was more substance to nourish the spirit.

Listen, wanna know a secret? Yesterday is not much more than Mama Mia for the Fab Four. “Here we go again, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah”.

 

YESTERDAY. Dir: Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting). Writers: story: Jack Barth; screenplay: Richard Curtis. With: Hamish Patel, Lily James, Meera Syal (Paddington 2), Joel Fry, Sanjeev Bhaskar (Unforgotten). Cinematographer: Christopher Ross (Terminal). Composer: Daniel Pemberton (Venom)  

 

TOY STORY 4**** To Infinity…


AS IF TO prove definitively just how relative time is, Toy Story 4 doesn’t feel a day older than the original Toy Story that was debuted waaay back in 1995.

This final version of the trilogy (only in Hollywood do trilogies come in four’s) feels as fresh, as delightful, as startlingly original, as magically well crafted as the original. From the moment that bouncing Pixar lamp stamps down on the “I”, you sit back and wallow in the 100 minute treat that follows.

The story deals (as usual) with our need to be loved in order to feel complete, via various detours that explore ideas of loss, loneliness and, what with a spork that thinks it’s no more than trash, identity. It follows Woody (Tom Hanks) and the gang’s adventures as they try to find and rescue, Forky, the spork (Tony Hale from Veep). This toy that thinks it’s just trash, belongs to their owner, Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) a lonely, similarly lost kid. It’s during her first traumatic day at school that she manages (with the secret helping hand of a paternal Woody) to create Forky. He’s a cock-eyed, ugly concoction of a spork and some pipe cleaners. Ugly he may be, but to Bonnie, Forky’s a warm, comforting BFF and companion…which naturally comes as alive, along with all the others, once she’s out of sight.

Woody’s rescue heroics takes him on a journey where he meets a few wonderful new creations – Duke Caboom, a Canadian stunt rider hiding his insecurities under slapstick braggadocio (Keanu Reeves in spirited form), a crazed doll desperate for love (Bonnie Hunt) and her henchmen, several (kids close your eyes now) demon puppets – and a joyous reunion with Bo-Peep (Annie Potts). This long lost flame of Woody’s is pure take-charge action gal. With her as his new companion, we know he’s in safe hands.

Writers Andrew Stanton (Finding Dory) and Stephany Folsom along with production designer Bob Pauley (Cars) and the CGI magicians at Pixar who’ve visualized these enduring characters, have, over the multiple iterations of the tale, consistently upped their game. Woody and the gang pull off the impossible balance of being quite clearly toys but also very identifiably real people. And director Josh Cooley’s visual pyrotechnics are unmatched; there are a number of breathtaking action scenes as exciting as any Marvel extravaganza. And it’s all delivered in a spirit of good humoured, often laugh out loud joyfulness.

What a marvellous antidote to these dark days of climate breakdown and Trump.

 

TOY STORY 4. Dir: Josh Cooley. Writers: Andrew Stanton, Stephany Folsom from an original story by John Lasseter, Valerie LPointe, Rashida Jones, Will McCormack and Martin Hynes. With: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts, Tony Hale, Madeleine McGraw, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, Bonnie Hunt. Production Designer: Bob Pauley. Art Director: Laura Phillips

 

LATE NIGHT***Satire + Treacle


LATE NIGHT TELLS the story of Katherine Newbury, an English female late night TV host (Emma Thompson) whose ten year slide in ratings threaten her show, her job, and for that matter, her (haughty, self-obsessed) sense of self. The Katherine Newbury show is accused of hosting boring guests, with a dull lead-in joke routine and, worse, she’s accused of hating women. The heart of the problem is that Katherine and her program have lost touch with its audience. She has simply not moved with her audience’s times.

High drama for an often sharp comedy!

And because it’s a comedy (written by the increasingly popular Mindy Kaling), it’s allowed the plot device of introducing Molly Patel (Kaling) into the all-male, generally misogynistic, sycophantic writers bull-pen.

The introduction of a woman of colour (and an inexperienced one at that) into an all white, male writer’s team, is almost as fanciful as the idea of a female late night host on American TV. No matter, it allows the writer a wonderful opportunity to skewer the status quo (that’s killing the show): that of the entitled White male, their casual racism and their outright hostility toward any woman taking a ‘man’s job’… led by a management style (Katherine’s) based on insult and intimidation (see The Devil Wears Prada for a primer)

These are the attitudes that feed and form the show’s (or for that, read, ‘any company that resembles this profile’) increasing irrelevance.

Nothing a little “diversity” can’t solve. Apart from a healthy dollop of naïveté and chutzpah, it’s Molly’s common touch that helps re-acquaint Katherine and the writers with the daring and the authenticity that once honed their relevance and wooed their audience.

Emma Thompson is, as usual, superb. With minimum words and with the barest of expressions, she allows us in to her character’s vulnerability despite the hard protective shell of her cold-hearted bitchiness. John Lithgow is compelling as her quiet, ailing husband. He’s the solid anchor, the forgiving counterpoint to help steady his younger wife’s hard edges and career implosion.

It’s often a well-written, enjoyable movie; often funny; often sharply insightful and snappily directed by TV director Nisha Ganatra (Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Dear White People).

But about half-way through, in a need to tie things up neatly, the movie looses its self confidence. The writer shies away from the truth of her, cynical, insights, to force a Hollywood gloss on things. The introductory scenes of hard-edged satire veers into emotional mawkishness. There’s a treacly rom-com-esque silliness that suggests a writer as desperate as her lead character to do anything for the approbation of her audience.

And that’s a pity. Mindy Kaling (writer: The Office; actor: Oceans Eight) is a fine up-and-coming talent. She needs a few more lessons from the likes of Armando Iannucci or even Neil Simon to add a little spicy pepper to neutralize the cloying sweetness.

 

LATE NIGHT. Dir: Nisha Ganatra. Written by: Mindy Kaling. With: Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, John Lithgoe, Reid Scott (Veep), Dennis O’Hare (The Good Fight). Cinematographer: Matthew Clark

 

ROCKETMAN*** From sinner to saint in two hours


ROCKETMAN IS A well-made, delightfully enjoyable minor movie. After all, how bad can any movie be that features so many tunes that were the sound tracks of so many lives. Elton John’s music, like that of Bohemian Rhapsody’s (another movie buoyed up by the music) remains brilliantly evergreen.

The movie, that genuflects at every turn to Mr. John, veers maddeningly from the brilliant to the boorish, as it tracks the singer’s journey from unloved child through years of drug and alcohol abuse to glorious redemption.

We first meet Elton John (Taron Egerton) dressed as a glittering rhinestone devil. And we leave his story with the unambiguously hagiographic worship of his philanthropic generosity, his limitless love for David Furnish his partner and Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) and of course his beautiful blonde kids.

The sinner has turned saint.

When it’s not in the puppet-master hands of the Elton John PR machine, director Dexter Fletcher (Eddie the Eagle) pulls of the remarkable feat of cleverly balancing campy melodrama with an old fashioned song and dance musical (Some of the numbers seem directly lifted from The West Side Story) made with a stage version squarely in mind.

And, at this level of mindless entertainment, it works.

Elton John’s ability to conjure music out of nowhere (with Bernie Taupin’s extraordinary lyrics as the catalyst) remains a joy. And I wish more were made of the sheer magic of these moments of creation. The music, and especially Taupin’s lyrics, drives the story forward. They underline and interpret the ever-varying phases of John’s emotional pulse (And now I finally understand what “Yellow Brick Road” is all about). Apart from a plot-structuring device, Taupin’s lyrics are an intelligent way of showcasing how you can never really separate the artist from his creation. (Though I missed the pleasure of simply sinking into the music…allowing it to breath and live its own life without the need to peg it to a storyline)

The story itself is woven around the theme of the life enhancing centrality of love (Having been denied the love from his parents as a child, Elton must (re) learn how to love himself before he can find the true love of others. The fabricated persona, Elton John, must embrace the real person, Reginald Kenneth Dwight as part of his healing process).

We learn of the singer’s life-journey through a series of extended flashbacks during his AA sessions (after he’d finally hit his drug addled, alcohol deranged bottom)

As the singer, Taron Egerton (Robin Hood, Kingsman), who did his own singing, is, like his imitation of John’s voice, credible. But (since the comparison must be made) he has none of that X-factor magnetism that Rami Malek brought to his interpretation of Freddie Mercury. In that story, producer Brian May wanted a feel good movie that celebrated the self destructive tragedy of Freddie Mercury…by avoiding too many of the gay, nasty bits. Rocketman wallows in the nasty bits in order to deliver its feel good value with the reassurance that “It all ends happily after”

I’m not sure I quite believe either.

The movie pretends to be a psychological study of the singer…how his demons and his fears shaped his descent into ‘madness’. It’s not. The use of John’s confessions during his AA sessions is a lovely structural device. But it’s not much more than that: a device.

The stand out presence on the film though, is that of Richard Madden (Bodyguard, GOT) who up until now has been pretty much no more than a handsome one-note star. However Madden’s John Reid (Elton John’s manager and lover) is seductive, charming, devious, underhand and Machiavellian. It feels as though with him (and what seems like real bad blood with Elton John) the writer (Lee Hall: Billy Elliot) was given a much freer hand.

So, in summary. Rocketman is a mixed bag. This is a movie with none of the five star gravitas of some of those great movies about musicians (Jamie Foxx’ Ray for instance). But it’s a well done, reasonably serious, joyous romp.

 

ROCKETMAN. Dir: Dexter Fletcher. With: Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Stephen Graham. Writer: Lee Hall. Costume Designer: Julian Day (Bohemian Rhapsody. Robin Hood). Cinematographer: George Richmond (Tomb Raider, Kingsman)