Review: Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (2019)

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Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is a majestic and mature work. It’s the sort of film that feels like an intimate confession is being delivered on a grand stage. Taking place over the course of several months in 1969: the film is about an ageing actor- Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) who is dealing with the changing nature of his career as a heroic Western protagonist and the fabric of the industry.

Told almost entirely in real-time, Tarantino’s latest tips its hat to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America. That film concerned itself with the relationship between memory and time, with Robert DeNiro’s aged character walking in parts of a familiar city, immediately struck by a place or object that causes him to reflect on moments from his past. Much like Leone’s film, there are many moments in Hollywood where sequences of memory occur during mundane situations. One scene that comes to mind involves Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) fixing his friend’s roof and reflecting on why he got fired as a stunt man.

However, Hollywood is at its most engaging in its scenes of malaise with its characters expressing the personal goals that have eluded their grasp. Some of these instances of confession are often contrasted in interesting ways. One early scene at the Playboy mansion sees Steve McQueen (Damien Lewis) acknowledging why Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) would never go for a guy like him. He ends his lament by saying he “never stood a chance.” Later on, Dalton says the same thing when talking to a co-star about how he lost the role of Captain Virgil Hilts in The Great Escape to McQueen.

In this way, the film has most in common with Tarantino’s third film- Jackie Brown insofar as between the double-crosses and tense dialogue exchanges, the film gives time for its characters to ruminate about ageing and life aspirations. At the same time, Hollywood marks a departure for Tarantino. His films usually illustrate his characters taking on a persona and grappling with them like an actor interpreting a part in a script. Hollywood sheds this artifice in favour of showcasing the pure unbridled transformative experience of seeing an actor play out a scene. One sequence in the middle of the film, depicting Dalton in bad guy mode on an episode of “Looper” soars in this regard.

Dalton feels like a composite post-modern creation. He’s the sort of journeyman actor that Tarantino would have raved about and cast if he existed, speaking to the director’s tendency to celebrate aspects of obscure genre fare. But he also exists as an ironic mirror for DiCaprio. Much like the character is grappling with going from a youthful hero to being relegated to the villain of the week on various televisions shows, DiCaprio struggled with being taken seriously after being the youthful romantic lead for years.

DiCaprio’s best moments as the character are when these parallels come to the fore, such as an early scene when he’s talking to Hollywood producer- Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino). When Schwarz paints a picture of Dalton’s future, DiCaprio reacts with a sense of uneasiness, almost as though the truism of his early career are aligning with the character.

However, Brad Pitt steals the show in a captivating near-silent performance as Dalton’s stunt double and long-time friend- Cliff Booth. Booth engages in the same way as some of the male characters that have pervaded Tarantino’s films- seemingly amiable guys who have a hidden capacity for violence. Through the course of this film, this Tarantino archetype is subverted by a potent ambiguity of whether the stunt man truly enjoys the violence he commits. Pitt’s performance walks a fine line between pleasant and dangerous in a way that elevates the character to one of the director’s best.

Despite having less to say than any of Tarantino’s other female characters, Margot Robbie shines in a star turn as Sharon Tate. The character exists as an optimistic embodiment of classic Hollywood, illustrating it’s larger than life qualities and fevered dreamlike aspirations. In fact, many of her scenes, comprised of dancing to late sixties pop songs reminded me of scenes from Sleeping Beauty with Princess Aurora singing, filtered through the lens of Terrence Malick’s ethereal style.

Tate also exists as an interesting counterpoint to Dalton. In a key scene, she goes to a screening of her recent movie. While watching, she fondly remembers some of the on-set memories and innocently revels in the audience’s reactions. Tate embodies the side of Hollywood that exists at the behest of the audience, immersing them in a fantasy experience that will transport them away from everyday tribulations. In this regard, she’s portrayed without irony or complication much like how people would have seen movie stars in that era.

By comparison, Dalton is a character that illustrates what happens when the director says cut and the larger than life movie star suddenly fades and we see all the problems that engulf their daily existence. Dalton also contrasts with Tate by not caring about the audience, other than how they perceive him, and what movies will mean for career advancement, rather than mass enjoyment.

In fact, there’s a small thematic thread within the film of Dalton’s work being responsible for the violence of the Manson family. This is illustrated in a cutting speech by one family members- Susan Atkins (Mikey Madison) in which she points out that all there was on television growing up was violence. With this “brain wave,” she contends that they should attack the people who are responsible for them behaving in a violent way. At the end of this sequence, a mural of Dalton looking quite sinister is engulfed in red by a passing police siren, suggesting the actor’s violent legacy.

Although the historical revisionism is smaller in scale compared with Tarantino’s previous films, it’s nevertheless fascinating and quite poignant. By preventing Sharon Tate’s death at the hands of the Manson family, it’s almost as though the director is trying to keep the optimism of the studio system alive. In the sweet, almost Hollywood esque final moments: Tarantino believes these two disparate sides of the business can have a meaningful dialogue to keep the larger than life light, shine a little while longer.

 

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Brief Consideration: The Lion King (2019)

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Much like the Psycho (1998) remake, the live-action Lion King exists more as a conceptually interesting counterpoint to its source material, than an engaging work on its own terms. Although the film is inspired by the broadway musical and presented in a nature documentary ascetic, the narrative remains the same: A youthful and outcast lion called Simba (Donald Glover) must embrace his past and role as the king of his land in the years after his father’s death, Mufasa (James Earl Jones), who was murdered by his uncle, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor).

Crucially, the original animated film is a fantasy-based story and seeing it filtered through a National Geographic documentary lens is a mixed blessing. Mufasa’s line about Simba being destined to be responsible for “Everything the light touches” takes on profound new meaning as the rays of the sunlight and moonlight become like a dramatic spotlight, emphasising detail and highlighting important moments of the story. One memorable sequence involving Scar and the Hyenas is entirely lit by moonlight and it punctuates the group initially mistaking Scar for Mufasa, with the misty light making him seem like a shadow version of his brother.

In other places, the ascetic choice is remarkable in the off-book sequences that it creates, giving a sense of life for its animal characters, particularly one sequences that show the various paths a mouse treads before being captured by Scar. These silent scenes feel like the interludes that used to permeate vintage Disney animated features and represent the film’s ascetic at its most unconstrained.

The style is less effective in depicting the supernatural aspects of the narrative. The moment depicting Simba talking to his dead father is flat, unimaginative and lacking in resonance because it just involves the young lion hearing his father’s disembodied voice in a large dark cloud. This is a far cry from the larger than life image of Mufasa in the original movie and the back-lit puppet in the stage show. Additionally, it makes the musical sequences feel rather unnecessary because of the jarring effect of the realistic ascetic clashing with the whimsical nature of the source material. “Be Prepared” proves to be an exception as it’s delivered as a rousing military speech than a Disney villain show tune.

Much like its realistic documentary visual scheme, the 2019 remake of The Lion King truly comes alive in small moments that draw out interesting aspects in the story (Scar’s embittered attitude is further caused by being overlooked by a lioness he holds dear.) and interesting interpretations (Billy Eichner reimagines Timon as a cross between a flamboyant hairdresser and Jack from “Will & Grace”). However, these choices were more fascinating then emotionally resonating, something that the original animated feature never lacked in providing.

 

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Brief Consideration: Batman: Hush (2019)

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On the page, Batman: Hush was an unrelenting sprint through the character’s world and status quo, elevated by Jim Lee’s astounding artwork. Its much-beloved status came more from accessibility and grand heroic sketches than being an intriguing mystery that said anything about the Dark Knight. By comparison, the animated adaptation proves to be a much more engaging and interesting affair. In spirit, the comic and movie share the same story: the Caped Crusader gets embroiled in a mystery that involves much of his rogues’ gallery, Superman and old friend- Tommy Elliot. The series of events are orchestrated by a person whose face is hidden behind bandages and goes by the name of Hush.

Rather than concerning itself with being a speedy introduction, Batman: Hush instead pitches itself as an Elseworlds tale. The film does this by bringing the various narrative elements that were hinted at in the comic to the forefront. Instead of the Batman/Catwoman relationship being a minor note, it’s now fully explored and has genuine pathos, courtesy of the filmmakers taking the time to show the characters interacting outside of their costumed personas.

This is compounded by the relationship breakdown differing in its emphasis to the source material. In the animated feature, it’s far more tragic because Catwoman leaves Batman, due to his belief that he should not kill any of the criminals he hunts. Whereas, the comic ended the relationship because of Batman’s paranoia in the aftermath of the events that he’s experienced.

In an even more fascinating wrinkle, the identity of Hush is changed in the movie; making the mastermind of the comic (The Riddler), the mystery man wearing the bandages. The result is a much cleaner and efficient storytelling choice that illustrates the Elseworlds nature of the film, presenting Edward Nigma in a context outside his usual M.O. and motivation.

Despite these choices, the film has the opposite problem of the comic insofar as the art style is concerned. By not directly translating Lee’s stunning artwork to animation, the film can’t help but look flatter by comparison. This is even worsened by the film occasionally stopping to admire certain shots in slow motion. Even without taking Lee’s artwork into consideration; the film’s animation style does not hold a candle to other DC animated features, particularly The Dark Knight Returns, which split the difference between adaptation and reverence in its style. Though some shots of a nighttime Gotham with its vastly large and illuminated tall buildings do catch the eye.

While Batman: Hush does improve upon its source material with a much more streamlined narrative and compelling central romance, the film does still begs the question of why it’s still among the most beloved Batman stories. Nothing in the film particularly speaks to the Caped Crusader as much as other tales, and its interesting elements often centre on its antagonists more than anything else.

 

 

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Personal Post: First Footage from Cameron Cloutier’s Queen of Hearts

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At this point, the making of Cameron Cloutier’s Twin Peaks fan film (Queen of Hearts) would rival the sharpest tangents that the third season of the famous show took. From broken promises to persistent attempts to obtain money for little work, Queen of Hearts has seen it all. However, a rare spot of good news came in the form of the first footage being unveiled. Lasting over two minutes in length, the sneak peek sees Annie seemingly dropped from the Black Lodge. As she wakes up, she looks around the mystical woods and feels compelled to approach Jackrabbit’s Palace. Once there, the young woman repeatedly asks to be taken. The clip ends with Annie being swallowed up by a swelling vortex.

The sneak peek is dripping with atmosphere, courtesy of some excellently framed and edited point of view shots. In their stillness, they have the quality of the vast woods being like a faux reality where higher powers are indulging in a game much like a child playing with a doll’s house. The middle eastern sounding music by Peter Gabriel further entrenches us in a feeling of surreality, creating an odd juxtaposition between place and context, much like a dream that paints an odd reality that never quite feels right. The final images of Annie’s left behind heels and one of them tipping over, feels like a homage to Wizard of Oz with a black comic note. The moment would not feel out of place in any David Lynch film.

Like the best teasers, the footage tantalises and asks questions that would have us all chatting for days on end at the Roadhouse. It’s well worth your time and you can watch it at the below link.

If you would like more information on Queen of Hearts then you can do the following:

You can like the Queen of Hearts’ Facebook page for all the latest news:

https://www.facebook.com/QueenofHeartsATwinPeaksFanFilm/

And subscribe to the Obnoxious and Anonymous YouTube channel for further media updates:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC0hoE4h1oj1_nVu6CLLovZw

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Review: Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019)

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In retrospect, it’s hard not to view Spider-Man: Homecoming as a perfunctory footnote in the ongoing Marvel cinematic saga. Coasting on the charm of its cast and high school setting: the film was an uninvolving and annoyingly light affair that presented its central character without his neurotic charm and had little going on under the bonnet (subtextually). By comparison, Spider-Man: Far From Home is a sombre and endearing film that has a lot on its mind.

Picking up directly after the events of Avengers: Endgame, Far From Home sees Peter Parker (Tom Holland) going on a European school trip, where he hopes to impress MJ (Zendaya) and relax by leaving his superhero persona at home. However, he soon finds himself recruited by Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) to stop four creatures (The Elementals) who have come from another dimension. Along the way, Spidey teams up with a being from an alternate Earth- Quenton Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal), who has previously fought the elemental foes.

Far From Home is engaging as an exploration of Iron Man’s legacy. The death of Tony Stark looms over the film like a spectre. The result is some of the characters wondering if they can live up to his image, much like the Marvel cinematic universe is asking itself the same question, in the aftermath of Robert Downey Jr’s contribution to the series.

With this in mind, it’s hard not to view the final battle as a postmodern conflict between the chosen heir to the Marvel cinematic universe (Spider-Man, with original Iron Man director- Jon Favreau on hand as Happy Hogan in a producer role) and a pretender- (Quentin Beck) who is using inherited Stark technology to create a faux-hero. Mysterio is interesting insofar as his ultimate reveal swims in the same subtextual pool as the Nolan Batman films, a heroic persona being a social construct as opposed to a sole creation.

Jake Gyllenhaal is excellent as the green-suited and fishbowl wearing Beck. He turns the theatricality of the original Stan Lee and Steve Ditko character into a hyperactive director who often feels like he is commenting on the creation of a Marvel Studios film.

The film is marred by a few too many instances of contrived comedy, some less than thrilling action sequences that are usually awkwardly staged and put too much emphasis on comic gags. Though one sequence involving Mysterio is quite spectacular. The striking comic images of John Romita Sr’s era of the villain is filtered through the horrific dream logic of the Nightmare on Elm Street series.

Far From Home does have its heart in the right place. The instances of Spidey balancing his double life: from picking up a harlequin mask to hide his identity during a fight sequence to contriving a reason to escape a night at the opera are well portrayed. Plus his romance with MJ is genuinely charming and interesting in its emphasis and trajectory. But the film can’t escape the problem that the character’s neurosis is a result of Tony Stark; choosing him as a surrogate son and heir, as opposed to an irresponsible moment he can never repay. I hope future instalments no longer feel the need for Spider-Man to live in Iron Man’s shadow. 

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Review: Toy Story 4 (2019)

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Even by Pixar’s high standards, Toy Story 4 seems like a daunting prospect. Not only was the trilogy responsible for the animation studio becoming a household name, but the films had become like a cherished memory. Viewed through the prism of a growing boy and his toy collection; the films tapped into our existential angst and a simpler time when our imaginations roamed free, courtesy of some inspired set pieces and sight gags. Toy Story 4 manages to retain these qualities in an emotional, persistently amusing and thematically rich sequel.

The film is about Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and their various friends dealing with a new toy that their owner (Bonnie) has created. Appropriately referred to as Forky, the new toy has an identity crisis. He’s a handcrafted plastic spork who believes that he’s meant to fulfil his purpose as a disposable utensil. While on a family road trip, Forky (Tony Hale) becomes lost and it’s up to Woody to find him. Along the way, the resilient cowboy becomes caught up in an adventure involving a quaint antique shop, creepy ventriloquist dolls and old friend- Bo Peep (Annie Potts).

Rather than having an insular focus on one kid and the relationship they have with their toys, Toy Story 4 instead widens its lens to examine the notion of toy individuality. Having now experienced the full cycle of a toy (wonderfully illustrated in a touching montage) with Andy, Woody is challenged with the idea of not being attached to a kid. This results in an interesting inversion of the “lost toy” fear that permeated the trilogy.

When exposed to the light, the notion becomes an empowering way of life to pursue personal goals to a greater degree. Rather than be tethered to the role of being responsible for one kid’s happiness, Woody can now help toys to find a home and in the process make more people content.

In the film’s most striking cinematic moment, Bo Peep and Woody are standing up atop a stone structure overlooking a bustling fair. The sheriff looks at Peep with love-struck admiration and the sheep wrangler says to him, “look”. Peep refers to the park as we get a full view of it in a sumptuous 360-degree shot. The moment is important for illustrating that Woody’s attachment to people is so absolute that he does not stop to consider the larger world around him. Toy Story 4 is at its best conveying these visual epiphanies.

Equally as compelling is Forky. In a film series that’s had toys come out of their boxes with fully developed personalities, it’s refreshing to see an innocent and docile character. His existential turmoil carries on the themes of purpose from the trilogy in a funny and quaint way. Tony Hale brings sweet naivety within his vocal performance. In a potentially last appearance as Woody; Tom Hanks adds a world-weariness and sense of age to Woody. He comes across as a parent who has seen their child grow up and must repeat the process again. But Christina Hendricks steals the show in an adorable and touching vocal performance as Gabby Gabby.

The Toy Story films have always played in sub-genre sandboxes with ease. Toy Story 4 is no exception. Born with a defective voice box and left in an old antique shop; Gabby Gabby longs for a cherished memory with a kid she frequently sees (Harmony). The character’s story is framed like a tragic Gothic story where she’s cursed to decay into obscurity. Some of Toy Story 4’s most interesting writing is in subverting the Gothic ascetic set up of Gabby’s storyline into something that feels emotionally true and resonating.

Less successful is the film’s use of most of the vintage toys. Since the original picture, the films have varied in their success of the comedic shades that they’ve drawn Buzz with. The character encountering a mirror image of himself in Toy Story 2 was unremarkable at best. The joke of Spanish Buzz in Toy Story 3 enlivened proceedings because it functioned as a hilarious commentary on the relationships the character had with the rest of the crew.

In 4, Buzz is saddled with a one-note joke that sees him believing that his action commands are a stand-in for his conscience. The joke seeks to make the character feel quite dumb. It also makes less sense as it goes on due to this Buzz being a vintage variant who’s limited to only so many action phrases.

The rest of the crew shine less in their personalities as the previous instalments. And in some instances, the film seems to have even forgotten some of the dynamics they had, i.e Buzz and Jessie. Consequently, the old set can’t help but feel like pawns in the context of the narrative. But for all its minor blemishes, Toy Story 4 necessitates its existence by opening up its narrative to the alluded aspects of the previous films. In this way, the film is like an old toy that you rediscover and find that it has more features than you initially thought.

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Editorial: My Top Five Toy Story Scenes (Inspired by Filmspotting)

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In an act that would even make the slowest snail rolls their eyes in disbelief, I’ve not yet seen Toy Story 4. Part of this is due to time and the desire to save this cinematic gift from Pixar as something to unwrap on my birthday. I also wanted to properly revisit the celebrated animated trilogy.

Much like getting out an old family album and viewing each photo with a mixture of fondness and melancholy: the Toy Story movies have become a precious cultural touchstone. They remind us of an innocent time when imagination and playing seemed like the most important thing in the world. This is a theme that recurs throughout my top five scenes.

5) An Adventurous Space Opening

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The cold open for Toy Story 2 feels like the stabilisers have been removed from the filmmakers’ bike. The scene sees Buzz Lightyear on an exploratory mission in Sector 4 of the Gamma Quadrant. As much as the Toy Story films depict the sheer thrill and wonder of playing with toys, this sequence is a cinematic play session of the tent-pole movies that have inspired the series.

At the same time, it’s an interesting showcasing of Buzz Lightyear in his element. His various abilities are no longer flashy features on a product, but effective tools in combating his various foes. In this way, the sequence is an interesting riff on the central irony of the first film, elevated by Randy Newman’s rousing and adventurous score. 

4) The Original Playtime Sequence

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In many ways, the opening of Toy Story is an important sequence. Not only does it efficiently introduce all the main characters of the narrative, but it also sparks some of the philosophical questions that permeate the series. How does a toy have to be played with? Are the toy’s identity and purpose attached to the roles assigned by the kid that plays with them?

But above all, the sequence is imaginatively staged and sincere in its depiction of a young boy’s play session. In particular, the medium shots, framing and homemade production design wonderfully convey the looming size of the environment that Andy has created.

3) I Will Go Sailing No More

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As much as Toy Story is about Woody attempting to reassert his relevance in his group’s hierarchy and Andy’s affections; (akin to the Western genre attempting to find relevance after the American space-age), it’s equally about Buzz coming to terms with his identity as a toy. The previous scene involving Buzz at a make-believe tea party was an amusing riff on a drunk scene in a serious drama.

But this sequence is a sobering depiction of suicide, with Buzz believing he can fly to reach an open window across the stairway. Randy Newman’s vocal performance conducts the scene’s emotions. His voice swells with perpetual hope as Buzz prepares to fly and his melancholic, pause-filled reading of I Will Go Sailing No More, gives the scene it’s sombre power. 

2) A Silent Escape

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Much like the opening for Toy Story 2, this scene coasts on the charm of its boundless cinematic imagination. The sequence is a great homage to the silent era comedies with its physical stunts and Woody’s series of worried facial expressions. It could have easily have been a Pixar short but in its relevance to the story, it’s invaluable in illustrating the stakes of escaping from Sunnyside.

1) A Final Playtime

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Andy handing down of all of his toys to Bonnie is a tearful and bittersweet scene. It singlehandedly justifies Pixar’s choice to allow the Toy Story films to grow with its audience. Aside from the obvious tinge of nostalgia that engulfs proceedings, (via Andy briefly describing each toy), the scene also functions as a Rorschach test. Depending on the viewer, it will either represent a flood of childhood playtime memories or a sobering reminder that this simple time in their life is over and is never coming back.

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