Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood (18)

Spoilers ahead, including of the ending!

Audience expectations are director Quentin Tarantino’s plaything. He knows exactly what filmgoers are braced for in terms of his signature blood-letting, but Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood finds him at his most restrained.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays struggling actor Rick Dalton, and Brad Pitt is his stunt-double and friend, Cliff Booth. The setting is 1960s L.A., and much of the film is spent revelling in the style and atmosphere that has been beautifully recreated.

Tarantino was about 6-years-old when the film is set, and has revealed that he sometimes shot from low angles to show how he saw the city at that age. Most people might have their old videos transferred to DVD to relive their childhoods, but Tarantino has spent millions rebuilding his for real, and populating it with characters to live out his fantasies.

Most of the film is spent charting Dalton’s waning career as a TV actor. He finds himself increasingly relegated to play the villain rather than the hero, and has to travel to Italy to appear in Spaghetti Westerns (which he hates, but are one of Tarantino’s most beloved genres). There is a lot of fun to be had in watching megastar DiCaprio give a self-aware performance as an insecure actor, with Pitt as his gofer.

The true story of the Manson Family murders is the sinister backdrop for their adventures, constantly threatening to break the spell of nostalgia with explosive violence. Margot Robbie plays the actress Sharon Tate, who was killed by members of the Family in 1969, two weeks before she was due to give birth. The fictional Dalton lives in the house next door to Tate and her husband, director Roman Polanski.

Al Pacino co-stars as a movie producer, but is sorely underused, and the great Tim Roth had his scenes cut entirely. This smacks of a director who’s self-confidence has gotten out of control. His longtime editor Sally Menke died in 2010, and his work since has missed her collaboration keeping him in check.

The writer/director has said he makes his films for himself, but that everyone is invited. For movie buffs, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood should be a blast. Tarantino famously lets music inspire his writing, and here delivers another rich soundtrack, but in this case the songs are sometimes more entertaining than the scenes they accompany. It’s an exercise in (albeit impressive) style over substance, and for those who don’t share the director’s tastes, the film is much too long.

Long frustrated by criticism of the explicit content of his films, Tarantino remains vehement that there is a big difference between real-life violence and ‘movie violence’. In this film he has crafted an ending that is something of a muddled comment on that debate.

(Here come the big spoilers…)

When the gruesome climax finally arrives, and members of the Manson Family approach the Polanski residence, the story swerves from history into fantasy – as has been Tarantino’s penchant in recent years. Berated by Dalton for bringing their noisy car onto his private road in the middle of the night, the Manson hippies recognise him from TV, and decide instead to murder those who ‘taught them to kill’ – their TV heroes next door to Tate.

But stuntman Cliff Booth is in their way. Booth’s character is given a deliberately unsettling backstory – we learn that he may have killed his wife and got away with it. In heroically protecting Tate and her unborn child by brutally killing her would-be attackers, he is given a redemptive character arc in which the murder of his fictional wife is counterbalanced by his saving a real-life wife. Perhaps Tarantino is expressing his horror at the real-life killings by ‘undoing’ them, but dismissing his detractors by still flying the flag for his cherished ‘movie violence’.

The subject matter perhaps sheds light on the inspiration for Tarantino’s infamous Kill Bill films. Like Tate, the avenger in those was a pregnant blonde bride, similarly attacked and left for dead. This latest fantasy of retribution may come from a real sense of injustice, but Tarantino makes no attempt to understand or sympathise with the brainwashed youths. He invites you to delight in the vicious way they are slain. The lead culprit, as he did in real life, describes their intent as ‘the devil’s business’. Their actions may have been evil, but vengeance belongs to God (Deuteronomy 32:35 and Romans 12:19), not to angry filmmakers – however brilliant.

★★★★☆ Spectacular and sprawling – Tarantino at his most self-indulgent but least violent.

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Yesterday (12A)

The Beatles. Danny Boyle. Richard Curtis. For fans of two or more of these, Yesterday is a must see. A struggling singer/songwriter finds himself the only one on earth who remembers The Beatles, and seizes the opportunity to claim their work as his own. So begins a light-hearted romcom with a killer soundtrack.

The problem is there’s nothing else to it. That simple premise is stretched across the two-hour runtime, with only a superficial romance for backup. Screenwriter Richard Curtis apparently thinks ‘All you Need is Love’ is more than a nice song, but an anthem to live by.

He has said as much in interviews, citing Beatles songs as inspiration for his career. “I was always over-interested in love. Maybe that’s why The Beatles struck such a chord.” But a good song about love doesn’t necessarily make a good story. A song can be a three-minute fantasy – a quick injection of ‘feel-good’. But a film needs substance to sustain it.

No attempt is made to flesh out the characters. They aren’t much more than caricatures made to spout Curtis’ usual platitudes. In his world love is something that can be both eternal and transient, all-conquering and a pushover. Such contradictions might be forgiven in a song, but in a film aiming to deliver a convincing happy ending they let the story down.

Director Danny Boyle’s usual energy and style are present, but muted. His apparent lack of enthusiasm is evident as he described Yesterday as “a perfectly workable and decent film with the most extraordinary music in the world”.

The Beatles, while obviously exceptional musicians who had an unparalleled impact on our culture, are given almost messianic status. Their songs are taken as transcendental wisdom, rather than just great music to appreciate. Combined with Curtis’ decision to have the main character misuse the name of Christ every few minutes, there’s more than a whiff of idolatry in the exaltation of the band.

Gripes aside, plenty of the jokes land well, and there is a certain innocent joy beyond the paint-by-numbers love story. How could there not be with songs like these?

★★★☆☆ Shallow but fun. Worth seeing for the music if nothing else.

If You’re Gone

If You’re Gone is the third film from Christian production company Every New Day Pictures. Writer/director Brittany Goodwin adapted the script from her own novel, which tells the story of teen student Lillian, whose life is turned upside down when her boyfriend Brad goes missing. Lillian’s faith is rocked as she tries to find him, and learns difficult secrets from his past.

Masey McLain is excellent as Lillian, a complicated role that requires her to carry the whole film – there’s barely a scene she’s not in. Without her strong performance anchoring the almost 2 hour runtime, the slow-burn mystery could be patience-testing.

If You’re Gone is a breath of fresh air for the market it aims at. Teen romances are too often thinly veiled sex-comedies with simplistic morals tagged on. Goodwin’s film is pure without being prudish, making it accessible and honouring to an age demographic that, perhaps more than any other, needs entertainment that helps them stay pure, not causes them to fall.

The quality is sometimes inconsistent, but to focus on that would be cynical. This is a young production company, with a rising generation of filmmakers improving with each project. The story subtly shows that romantic relationships are not the most important thing in life, and that God knows the beginning from the end. If You’re Gone is a film that should give discerning young people pause for thought.

★★★☆☆ An earnest tale with a strong central performance – Every New Day Pictures are brimming with potential.

The Bishop and the Beggar

After some success at festivals, short film The Bishop and the Beggar has been released online. It is produced by Trinity Digital, a Scottish production company that aims to give its audience “a cinematic expedition into the Christian faith”.

Telling the deceptively simple story of a troubled churchman and a local homeless girl, the film weaves an unusual morality tale. In asking viewers to judge Christianity based on actions rather than appearances, The Bishop and the Beggar delivers an important message, while retaining just enough ambiguity to stay credible.

The gritty shooting style offers moments of beauty, and makes good use of locations and lighting to emphasise the emotional beats. The main cast acquit themselves well, but the depths their characters sink to are a bit much for such a brief story – there’s not enough space in the 12 minute runtime to fully empathise with them.

On the other hand, too often short films from new filmmakers can be muddled and self-indulgent, but director Murdo Macleod tells his story with efficiency and conviction. No mean feat, and worth a watch.

It can be seen via this link.

★★★★☆ A thoughtful and worthwhile showcase of upcoming talent.

Alita: Battle Angel (12A)

Special effects pioneer James Cameron had been developing Alita for more than a decade, but when he struck gold with Avatar the project fell by the wayside. Fellow-3D enthusiast Robert Rodriguez took over the reins, paring the script down from a 5 hour film to just 2. Although necessary, the story suffered in translation. There is a lot of expository dialogue, and the romantic subplot is particularly thin – but at least they didn’t split it into two films à la Harry Potter.

Set in the far future, after a reverse-Babel event has caused the world’s civilisations to retreat to a single city, cyborg Alita is found in pieces at a rubbish dump – entirely robotic except for her human brain. Suffering from amnesia, she sets out to discover her identity. Her incredible fighting abilities and impulse to stand against evil give the first clues.

Another city hovers above, where the world’s malevolent ruler dwells. Alita pairs up with street-kid Hugo to take on the god-like villain, and their romance hints at deep questions: do our minds hold the essence of our humanity, or our bodies, or both? The story has themes of sacrifice, redemption and even resurrection – when Alita is reassembled it is as though she is back from the dead – but such philosophical moments are short-lived, as much of the screen time is given to spectacular but unrelenting action. The violence is extreme for a 12A, though there is relatively little blood as most of the fighting is between robots.

What little social commentary the story offers is ambiguous. It suggests that the ideal body is a projection of our subconscious self-image, making the body an expression of identity rather than an integral part of it. On the other hand the film has very positive portrayals of women. Refreshingly, Alita’s appearance is not overly sexualised (which can’t be said of the Japanese comic source material). Cameron is known for writing strong female characters, and Alita certainly continues that. The film also gives a glimpse of a bright future for the disabled – the production led to technological advancements for real-life prosthetics.

The computer effects are astounding. Producer Jon Landau said there is more detail in one of Alita’s computer-generated eyes than there was in the whole of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings! The results are awe-inspiring, and unlike other stereoscopic films, many of which are merely retrofitted with the effect, Alita is worth catching in 3D.

★★★★☆ A technical marvel that asks some searching questions.

The Mule (15)

Clint Eastwood has taken several stabs at a swan song, and with The Mule he might have finally found the perfect way to bow out. Based on the true story of an 87-year-old military veteran and horticulturalist turned drug-runner – Eastwood has interwoven the character with himself, creating a touching and candid sign-off for one of cinema’s most legendary filmmakers.

Spoilers ahead!

The part-fictionalised character, Earl Stone, is pure Eastwood – a womanising, innocently un-PC rogue. Long-divorced, Earl always put his business ahead of his wife and kids. After failing to show up at yet another family function, and with his livelihood left behind by a booming online industry, a chance meeting offers him what he’s looking for – an easy way to make a lot of money. At first naive to what he is doing, he uses his newfound wealth to try and win back some family affection.

Many details are true to life – but his family is entirely fictional. This reveals the kind of story Eastwood wanted to make, using the drug-mule set-up as a backdrop. Earl doesn’t play by the cartel’s rules, and when new management takes over he is threatened with death if he deviates from their instructions. Then Earl hears that his ex-wife is on her death bed and wants to see him – forcing him to decide whether to risk his life to finally do the right thing by his family.

Eastwood relishes showing that at 88 he is still the worldly epitome of macho-cool – gruff and sneering, attracting women a fraction of his age, but with a so-called heart of gold. Despite this, The Mule is first and foremost about prioritising family. Bradley Cooper plays the cop on Eastwood’s tail, and there is a moving scene where Eastwood warns him not to make the same mistakes he did, and lose his family in pursuit of a career.

In the end Earl learns from his mistakes, and accepts his fate. Is Eastwood drawing another parallel, suggesting he had wrong priorities in life, but at 88 it’s all too late? But there’s no spiritual solace for him. Early in the film Earl changes the radio station in his truck from a gospel broadcast to oldies to sing along to on the road, resigned to the inevitable doom ahead. The credits roll on a melancholic song with lyrics that could be just as much about Clint as Earl, ‘Don’t Let the Old Man In’.

★★★★☆ A simple story about a tragic character – a poignant potential curtain call from Clint.

The House with a Clock in its Walls (12A)

Horror film director Eli Roth makes a left field foray into children’s stories with book adaptation The House with a Clock in its Walls. He describes it as “…sort of the gateway to [children] being scary-movie fans.” Roth takes influence from PG rated kids films of the 80s, such as E.T. and Gremlins, but the result is something much darker, and stretches the limits of it’s 12A rating.

Spoilers follow.

Recently orphaned Lewis goes to live with his estranged Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black), who is a warlock, or ‘boy-witch’, as Lewis calls him. Jonathan lives platonically with witch Florence (Cate Blanchett), and Lewis soon wants to learn their trade. But this isn’t the fairy-tale magic of Disney, or even Harry Potter – this is much closer to real-life satanic practice. The house is full of upside down crosses and pentacles, and the plot bounces from blood rites to necromancy and demons from hell. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a poison pill with a very thin sugar-coating.

Lewis struggles to make friends in his new neighbourhood. After learning a few ‘tricks’ of the trade from his uncle, he uses them to dazzle the kids at school. But one of them will not be impressed by anything short of a resurrection, so Lewis sneaks to the local graveyard, sheds his blood onto a pentacle and resurrects the former owner of the house – powerful warlock Isaac Izard! E.T. would have found another way home if he’d met this kid.

The most interesting aspect of the story is the purpose of the ticking clock in the walls. Traumatised by the horrors of WWII, Izard made a deal with a demon to destroy the world by turning time back to the very beginning. Izard’s repulsion at evil is the cause of his own descent into it. This muddying of good and evil is characteristic of the story as a whole. The idea that evil can be used for good is a dangerous misdirection, and the story ends without making any clear distinction.

At best, The House with a Clock in its Walls manages to be an entertaining throwback to a mischievous style of fantasy film, with Black and Blanchett revelling in the comic aspects of the script. But at worst it is introducing young audiences to Satanism, and is far too frightening for its target demographic. The book was aimed at ‘young adults’ – making the film’s pitch to children all the more misguided.

Roth says Steven Spielberg advised him: “Kids want to be scared”, “…make it scary.” Uncharacteristically unwise advice to give to a director whose early films started the horror sub-genre ‘torture-porn’. Roth fails to emulate the warmth and innocence of Spielberg’s 80s classics, and is predictably gleeful in giving children nightmares.

★★☆☆☆ A crass, occultic misfire.