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.

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.

First Reformed (15)

A character study of a spiritually tormented loner, from screenwriter Paul Schrader – it sounds like Taxi Driver (1976) all over again. But First Reformed is ultimately a very different story. This time the man with an overwhelming sense of moral outrage is the minister of a small church in Upstate New York, Reverend Ernst Toller. His dwindling congregation includes depressed environmental activist Michael, and his pregnant wife Mary.

Mary confides to Toller that her husband wants to end their unborn child’s life, to spare them from what he sees as the planet’s bleak future, post-global warming. Toller agrees to counsel him, and the stage is set for a deep tête-à-tête, in which the film’s themes are laid out. Michael poses the question: ‘Will God forgive us for what we’ve done to the world?’ Secretly shaken, but thrilled by the debate, Toller posits that the essence of life is in the simultaneous holding of conflicting truths: hope and despair. The story goes on to vividly dramatise the tension between these concepts, in the face of a broken creation.

Schrader was raised in a Christian home, attending the Calvinist Christian Reformed Church. Clearly this a deeply personal project. Returning to issues he first tackled in Taxi Driver, the influence of his apparently abandoned faith still looms large. Drawing inspiration from 1951 French film Diary of a Country Priest, Schrader even used the same aspect ratio as that film, giving only a slightly wider image than old ‘square’ televisions.

First Reformed gives a fair portrayal of many difficult Christian truths. When Toller assists with a youth meeting at the megachurch that supports his tiny parish, he is asked why some Christians have cushy lives, while others face trials. He gives a considered response, explaining that Christ doesn’t promise health and wealth in this life, and that the path of faith may be a hard one.

As Toller is drawn into the world of extreme environmentalism, more pressing deficiencies in his spiritual walk go ignored. He dismisses an affair he once had as not ‘real sin’, and in becoming obsessed with Michael’s question of whether God will forgive us for destroying the planet, he seems to forget the free forgiveness Jesus offers for all sins.

Despite the film’s staid construction and slow pace, it builds to surreal heights. The disarming finale uses a powerful rendition of ‘Leaning on the Everlasting Arms’, achieving something close to what Schrader describes as ‘transcendental style’.

★★★★☆ A rewarding study of faith in crisis.

Blade Runner 2049 (15)

More than thirty years later, revered sci-fi classic Blade Runner has been given a sequel. The original boldly opted for mood and soul over excessive plot. Through unique visuals and unpretentious poetry, it was an achievement greater than the sum of its parts. Blade Runner 2049 is the opposite. It is a convoluted fan-fiction that looks incredible, but falls short on story and emotion.

Ryan Gosling plays K, a new breed of replicant (genetically engineered slave) created to be perfectly subservient. He is a Blade Runner, tasked with ‘retiring’ (killing) fugitive replicants from past generations, who still have the ability to rebel. K stumbles on a secret long kept by his quarry, which sets him on a detective journey that could rewrite his identity.

Three short films were produced to be seen before the main feature. These set the scene and give crucial backstory. But such important plot points should have been made clear in the film itself – which is confusing and incomplete without them. They can be found online and on the home release. But even without the full story included, 2049 somehow manages to be ponderous and overlong.

Therein lies the problem with the new Blade Runner. Director Denis Villeneuve was so busy recreating the look of the its predecessor that he neglected to make sure the story was worth it. A self-confessed fan of the original, one wonders how he could get this so wrong. He dwells on the idea that memories are what makes us human, and only briefly touches on the more interesting notion that having a soul could be the key. Villeneuve shies from further exploring our spiritual side, whereas the first film was rich with Christian motifs.

The opportunity to explore new themes is let down by the overwrought plot. The introduction of Joi, a virtual companion for K, is one of the more original ideas. She demonstrates K’s unfulfillable longing for human warmth and love, which motivates him to try and attain these for someone who can appreciate them. But unfortunately, in portraying a female character so subservient, not to mention with explicit nudity, the film becomes exploitative in a way that it was perhaps trying to warn against.

The original’s composer Vangelis is sorely missed. His majestic music is replaced by a noisy exercise in atmospheric sounds, devoid of melody and harsh on the ear. Harrison Ford makes a welcome return however, giving a career best performance. But he arrives too late to rescue the film.

The real star of 2049 is the visuals. Rightly winning Oscars for cinematography and special effects, the film plays like an extended show reel for director of photography Roger Deakins. Drawing visual cues from the first Blade Runner, and introducing new touches such as atmospheric use of snow and pollution, this is where the film really shines. A key scene involving a holographic Elvis Presley is especially dazzling. But it’s a pity the story ends up playing second fiddle to the imagery.

The filmmakers should have listened to actor Rutger Hauer, who contributed so much to the 1982 masterpiece: “I struggle to see why [Blade Runner 2049] was necessary. I just think if something is so beautiful, you should just leave it alone and make another film. …I’m not certain what the question was in the second Blade Runner. It’s not a character-driven movie and there’s no humour, there’s no love, there’s no soul. You can see the homage to the original. But that’s not enough to me. I knew that wasn’t going to work.”

This disappointing sequel is a reminder of just how good the 80s classic is. Villeneuve brings his own creative flourishes, but doesn’t let the story go as deep as it could. He couldn’t capture the old Blade Runner magic.

★★★☆☆ Impressive visuals can’t redeem a cold and unsatisfying story.

2001: A Space Odyssey – 50th Anniversary (U)

Half a century on, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is once again dazzling and mystifying audiences in cinemas around the world. In 1968 it was met with both praise and ridicule. Since then it has been widely accepted, in the words of Avatar director James Cameron, as “the all time great science fiction film.”

Spoilers follow.

2001 is a film of big ideas, but deliberately obscure ones. Kubrick worked with Arthur C. Clarke to lay the film’s foundations in the form of a novel, the broad stroke themes of which are the origins of intelligence, humanity’s destiny and the nature of ‘god’. Kubrick chose to leave much of the book’s explanatory material out of the film, keeping the meaning out of reach. As such the novel is more accessible, but can’t produce the same sense of wonder as the film.

The story consists of three main parts. The first is a depiction of a certain popular theory of humanity’s ‘natural’ origins, but with ‘early man’ prompted by a higher intelligence to advance in their evolution. The middle part most closely resembles a traditional narrative, and features the legendary HAL 9000 computer – one of the most chilling villains in cinema history, and a prophetic warning about the rise of artificial intelligence. The third act lives up to the film’s tagline ‘the ultimate trip’, as Kubrick treats us to psychedelic photographic effects and a surreal climax that has the power to either hypnotise or bewilder. Martin Scorsese described the finale as “one of the best religious moments in moviemaking”, and 2001 certainly has a sense of spiritual zeal. The classical soundtrack, grand shots of the heavens and deceptively simple plot combine to transform the cinema into a cathedral – a place for contemplation and awe.

Steven Spielberg suggested that 2001’s sense of mystery stems from the three sections of story not quite fitting together. Kubrick’s decision to keep things mysterious can be attributed to his belief that a film should be “more like music than like fiction”, “a progression of moods and feelings”. Viewed more as a concert piece than a traditional story, 2001 is a special opportunity to appreciate cinema’s unique power to stir emotions through the marriage of pictures and music.

Kubrick said that “the god concept is at the heart of 2001, but not any traditional, anthropomorphic image of god. I don’t believe in any of Earth’s monotheistic religions, but I do believe that one can construct an intriguing scientific definition of god”. But he falls into the inevitable trap that in trying to replace God as creator with a superior alien civilisation, the same question has to be asked about who created that civilisation, and so on. Conceding that a higher power is needed, even just to coach life on earth, is a backhanded admission of the existence of God – but Kubrick and Clarke use the hypothesis as an excuse to deny that conclusion.

Kubrick’s wife called the film the prayer of an agnostic. 2001 reflects a filmmaker considering the possibility of a god-like being and the consequences that would have for scientific thought. These heady concepts are expressed through one of the most exquisite and uncompromising works of art of the 20th century.

★★★★★ Majestic and maverick, but with important themes that stop short of their logical conclusions.