Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (2019)

Chances are, you know of Quentin Tarantino. Bit of an oddball, painful to listen to, but he’s made some of the most iconic films…probably ever. Notable for his unique direction style, haphazard narratives and gratuitous violence, his films have made waves in the industry every time. His most recent film is no different. With a stellar cast, nearly three hours of screen time and a nostalgic look at Los Angeles in 1969, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood pays homage to the Golden Age of Hollywood, and one of the most profitable industries in the world.

Leonardo DiCaprio is Rick Dalton, the former lead actor of a popular TV western, now resigned to taking supporting roles in TV pilots. He is the embodiment of a fading star, clinging desperately to some semblance of his former fame and trying to carve out a career in film before it’s “too late”. At his side through it all is Brad Pitt as Dalton’s stunt double and friend, Cliff Booth. Casually, contentedly in the background of the film industry – with a somewhat unsavoury reputation – Cliff is cool as a cucumber from start to finish, and the antidote to Rick’s somewhat tumultuous, and often alcohol fuelled moods. The chemistry between the two is palpable, and there is a true sense of brotherhood that flows through the film as we follow the lives of these two showbusiness veterans, tetering on the edge of irrelevance.

Margot Robbie plays Sharon Tate, young and idealistic, and just breaking into the film industry as Rick Dalton (who, in this version of events, happens to be her next door neighbour) seems to be on his inevitable way out of it. This raised a few eyebrows in the lead up to the film’s release, as people were quick to jump to conclusions about how Tarantino may have handled that particularly sensitive issue. Anyone familiar with the Manson Family will understand the controversy, but the truth is that Robbie’s Sharon Tate is almost like a background character, more or less there for the purpose of juxtaposition between the old and the new.

Tarantino tackles a lot of really excellent themes in this film, particularly the bonds of friendship, and the effects of change. But with a run time of 161 minutes, the film itself is a bit meandering. Whilst the main story is that of Dalton and Booth, the film gets caught up in the Manson Family subplot which, for the most part, feels a little…lacklustre and at times, even pointless. The scenes involving the infamous cult have a tendency to drag, and not even the increasing undercurrent of tension, as the film builds to it’s inevitable conclusion, is quite enough to propel the scenes forward. Certainly, the movie would have benefited from losing at least a half hour of screen time. It feels like we’re being taken on a slow amble through the film, until the third act kind of explodes onto the screen with a pace and energy that the rest of the movie doesn’t quite manage to achieve.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed being taken on the nostalgic, and occasionally self indulgent ride back to the late 60’s. The era has been recreated with minute detail, and the movie is both stylistically and visually pleasing. With some familiar cameos (heyyyy Zoe Bell) and a supporting cast including Al Pacino, Timothy Olyphant and Emile Hirsch, it is the characters more so than the actual plot, who truly drive this film. Despite a few flaws with the film’s pace, it is worth watching for the explosive final act alone (if nothing else). In typical Tarantino style, is has some great dialogue, some funny moments interjected with the sincere, and truly unforgettable characters. The quirky director can be a little hit and miss for me, but in this case he scored a hit.

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Hellboy (2019)

I’ve been looking forward to the new Hellboy film for weeks. After watching several impressive trailers, I went to see it last night with high expectations. What I got was somewhat less than I was hoping for, but still an enjoyable cinema experience.

Neil Marshall’s take on everyone’s favourite big red demon has been met with mostly scathing reviews. Many people are holding it up against the Guillermo Del Toro versions, and saying that it falls short. Whilst I did thoroughly enjoy the 2004 adaptation and the sequel in 2008 (I mean, how cool was the Angel of Death, y’all?), I tend to find these kind of comparisons less than helpful. I feel that two different directors with two completely different visions, need to be critiqued on their own individual merit.

So I want to begin by saying that, despite its shortcomings – and there are quite a few, if we’re being honest – I actually quite liked this most recent take on Mike Mignola’s acclaimed comic. A general consensus amongst reviewers seems to be that David Harbour does an excellent job in the title role, and I agree. Plus, he looks absolutely fantastic. However, he can only do so much with the script he is given, and here I feel is one of the areas where this adaptation falls a little flat. Oftentimes throughout the film, the dialogue comes across somewhat clunky, where it should be free flowing. There are quite a few scenes that lack chemistry between the characters, and a lot of this has to do with what they’re saying – or not saying – to each other. And don’t even get me started on the less than stellar British accents! Despite this, there is a smattering of humour throughout, which helps to offset the moments where conversations sound stilted.

The film opens with a gravelly Ian McShane voice over for black and white scenes, interjected with startling red. The opening scenes tell of the Blood Queen Nimue (played by Milla Jovovich), and her defeat by none other than King Arthur, with the aid of Excalibur. But the rest of the movie proceeds to jump back and forth between what seems like too many subplots and flashbacks, and the effect is somewhat jarring. We’ve got vampires, giants, secret societies, Nazis, changelings, cat like beasts, and Baba Yaga herself. It’s the last character in particular that struck me as being unecessary. Whilst the scenes involving the grotesque, scuttling hag and her walking house are amongst the most effective visually, I found it to be a pointless addition to an already overloaded plot. The film suffers from an abundance of minor characters, with little to no real explanation for their presence.

The plot for Hellboy is drawn from the comics Darkness Calls, The Wild Hunt and The Storm and the Fury, but it feels rushed, with too much involved to be properly explored with any real depth. And it’s a shame, because with a little less unecessary subject matter and a little more substance, the plot could have worked a whole lot better, and flowed a whole lot smoother.

Effects wise, there was some absolutely fantastic gore throughout. I know a lot of people are complaining about it, but the video game playing, horror movie fan in me loved it. And in particular, the hell beasts in some of the final few scenes are the stuff of nightmares. Set against moody, apocalyptic skies and a gritty London backdrop, the gloomy colour palette works extraordinarily well against the splashes of blood and sheer unapologetic violence. Nimue’s vengeance presents in creative ways, and the CGI deaths of a few in particular were highly effective. Admittedly, there are moments during the film where the smaller budget (compared to other comic adaptations) shows, but overall it was a successful use of the R rating.

A couple of mid credits scenes hint at the possibility of expanding the universe with a sequel, but it all depends on how well or poorly this film does. Despite most of the reviews I’ve read, and though there are definitely things I would have liked to have seen done better, I really enjoyed the film for what it was. And I’d quite like to see it further explored, should the possibility of a sequel be a reality.

A Simple Favor (2018)

Directed by Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, The Heat) and starring Blake Lively and Anna Kendrick, A Simple Favor is a difficult film to categorise. I’ve heard it called a thriller, a domestic comedy, and even ‘Cute Noir’ (yeah, I don’t know what that is either). I suppose it has elements of each, but to be honest I’m still not really sure where to put it.

Anna Kendrick is Stephanie, an eager to please young widow who spends her time raising a son, filming vlogs from her kitchen, and being well intentioned, if generally a little too over the top. Mocked by a trio of other parents, in something akin to an adult version of Mean Girls, Stephanie is a little bit of a loner – albeit a very chirpy one. Blake Lively is Emily, and the antithesis of Stephanie; elegant, aloof, enigmatic and completely unperturbed about the opinions of others. She swears carelessly, has a nude portrait of herself hanging in her home, and drinks martinis in the afternoon. Despite their obvious differences, the two women come together as a result of their sons’ friendship, and strike up a friendship of their own. Mere weeks after their first encounter, Emily suddenly, unexpectedly disappears. And here begins a series of twists and turns that drive the rest of the film.

Stephanie, a self proclaimed problem solver, decides to delve into the mystery of Emily’s disappearance, whilst smoothly integrating herself into the life of the family Emily leaves behind. Her husband Sean (Henry Golding) can shed little light on the enigma that is his wife, admitting that she is an intensely private person, even with him. Cliches abound as the movie drives towards the middle, and with them comes a cringeworthy predictability that you could put money on. Though to it’s credit, there are a few key scenes and revelations that help to alleviate an otherwise unsurprising tale. As the movie progresses and the aforementioned twists begin to come into play, it becomes clear that despite their shiny Stepford exteriors, neither woman is entirely who she appears to be.

There is enough intrigue in the beginning to propel the film forward, but at a certain point it begins to drag out to a contrived, almost laughable conclusion. The humour is at odds with the somewhat darker subject matter, which works in some places (watch for the scene where Emily makes a candid, off the cuff remark about her labia) yet falls flat in others.

A Simple Favor, much like it’s central characters, can’t be taken at face value. There is more to it than the trailer suggests, and it’s doesn’t cleanly fit into any genre. It had the potential to be a really great film. The premise was good, the two talented female leads have obvious chemistry and play their respective characters incredibly well, and some of the costumes were to die for. Let’s be real, if I looked as good as Blake Lively in a suit, I’d wear them all the time. Yet Feig’s attempt to combine his typical direction and stylistic humour, and play it off against the ‘femme fatale’ character that dominates more elegant thrillers like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, doesn’t blend especially well. Whilst the film itself wasn’t bad, there were definitely aspects that could have been more finely tuned to create a more satisfying cinema experience. Nevertheless, if ever there was such a thing as a light hearted thriller, A Simple Favor is it.

The Lonely Life of Biddy Weir

Recently, I went into Big W looking for a specific book. I didn’t find the book I wanted, but I did leave with six other books instead. The Lonely Life of Biddy Weir was one of those six, one purchased on a whim because the blurb just captured my attention. It turned out to be one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.

As you can guess from the title, it is about a young woman called Biddy Weir. She is quirky, and misunderstood, and considered by everyone to be a little bit odd. In fact, she is so odd that Alison, the mean girl at her school, nicknames her Bloody Weirdo, and the consequences of that name stay with her all through her school years, and well into her adulthood.

As she suffers daily torment and abuse at the hands of Alison, her self worth slowly vanishes. Every happiness she has gets wrenched away from her, for the cruel entertainment of a bunch of girls. If I’m honest, the book is actually rather reminiscent of Carrie, albeit without the telepathy and the violent ending. But something about Biddy got to me, and stuck.

It is a heartbreaking story, and a familiar one. The one who dances to the beat of her own drum, is always the one left outcast and alone. Because even today, in our supposedly liberated society, to be considered weird is an insult. And Biddy is weird. But that is what makes her so special. Author, Lesley Allen, created a protagonist that I loved instantly, for all the reasons the other characters hated her.

The book is well written, has a steady pace, and is full of heart. It is beautiful in its sadness, and made me cry…and I’m not usually emotional. If you’re a little bit weird, I encourage you to meet Biddy. And I challenge you not to love her.

Lady Bird (2017)

Last week I took myself out on a date, and I went to see Lady Bird. I read a review a while ago by the guys over at MovieBabble and it piqued my interest, so I’ve been meaning to go see it for a while. I scored some free tickets for the cinema through work last year (the one good thing about my job) so I thought I’d take advantage of the midweek lull at the movie theatre, and the fact that it’s at the end of the showing cycle (both of these things contribute to less people to have to share a theatre with, y’all). 

The titular character is played by Saoirse Ronan, and I’ll be honest here guys; if you don’t love her then we can’t be friends. The 23 year old Irish-American (swoon) actress is incredibly talented, and Lady Bird is just one more film to be added to her ever growing list of fantastic performances. Set in 2002 in Sacramento, California; it tells the story of Christine McPherson (self-dubbed Lady Bird) as she completes her final year of high school, and prepares to go off to college. As a teenage girl on the cusp of womanhood, Lady Bird is certain of what she wants, and determined to go onto better things; to break free from the monotony of her home town and go to live in a place that has ‘culture’. Of course, her desire to leave is at odds with her mother’s equally strong desire to keep her close to home, and just one of the many things the two butt heads over.

Under Greta Gerwig’s direction, this film has a sense of frank honesty, and she tackles the coming of age genre with a touch of humour, and attention to detail. If the goal here was to be as raw and real as possible, then Lady Bird comes through. I feel as though all the characters reminded me people I know, or have met. Everyone from Lady Bird’s upbeat and positive best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein), to aloof, superior and somewhat condescending love interest, Kyle (Timothee Chalamet) was vaguely familiar to me. And each of the relationships in this film are essential to the driving forward of the plot. Though of course, the loving but turbulent relationship between Lady Bird and her mother (Laurie Metcalf), is at the centre of it all, as both women try to assert themselves in the face of conflicting interests and ideals.

This film was beautifully shot, with some really strong performances and a story at the heart of it all that I think most, if not all of us can relate to. Which of us hasn’t wanted desperately to move from our home town and experience something new? Which of us hasn’t dealt with those pressures from teachers, and indeed adults as a whole, in our teenage years? And which of us hasn’t gone through those mini existential crises, whilst we try to figure out who we are? Though the plot is not the most original (we all know that “girl ditches her true friends for new friends who turn out to only like the version of herself she’s created to impress them” trope oh so well), the performances make up for it. There’s something sweetly poignant about it, and it can’t be said that the film has no heart. With her directorial debut hitting home so accurately, I’d definitely be interested to see more of Gerwig’s creations in the future.

Ozark: Slow Burn Heats Up in the Finale 

I just finished the first season of Netflix’s original series, Ozark. I have to admit, I wasn’t immediately sold on it. The crime drama centres around Marty Byrde, (played by Jason Bateman); a financial advisor who finds himself on the wrong side of the dangerous Mexican cartel he works for. In a desperate attempt to keep himself and his family alive, Marty strikes a deal and relocates the family from Chicago, to the Ozarks in Missouri, where he must launder 8 million dollars by the end of the summer. 

The series has all the signs of a good drama. Intrigue, dissonance, an array of unscrupulous characters, and a healthy dose of good old fashioned conflict. The writing is sharp and the plot seems to propel itself forward smoothly enough. Where the show is let down, however, is in the lack of diversity of character. With an abundance of different people in the show, one would think they would each have a distinct set of personality traits that set them apart from the rest. But by the second or third episode, it became clear that the actors were all playing variations of the same persona; bland, wooden and ultimately watered down. I felt like the entire show was spoken in muted monotone, and the characters all had this kind of droopy hopelessness about them. It seemed like the supporting cast blended into one giant background character; the lodge owner Rachel, practically indistinguishable from FBI agent Roy Petty; or awkward Wyatt Langmore who is as resolutely uninteresting as Sam, the real estate agent.

The obvious exceptions to this are Ruth (played by Julia Garner) who is exactly the kind of no nonsense, tough talking, out of the box thinker required to inject some much needed fire into the series. And even she took me a few episodes to really warm to, though I had to admire her propensity for ruthlessness right from the start. She has a depth the other characters seem to lack, hinted at within the brief exchanges with her incarcerated father, and her unexpected tenderness towards her cousins. Jonah, with an intelligence that seems to far outweigh that of his older sister, his innocent curiosity, and his willingness to do what it takes to protect his family, is another welcome change to the boring character landscape.

This, coupled with an overuse of a grey/blue colour palette, did a lot to give Ozark the feel of something as cold and lifeless as a body on a slab. But, it’s saving grace lies in the execution. As a viewer, I found myself curious to see how it would play out for the Byrde family, with adversity bearing down on them from all sides, and new conflict arising in the midst of the old. You can’t help but root for them, as you watch them band together despite past infidelities, and hold true to family values that become more important to them with each passing episode. It’s true, the show has a slow burn, and you don’t quite realise how far it has progressed until the last few episodes, where things really start to heat up (literally!), but it comes together in such a way that I’m pleased to hear they’ve announced a second season.

Ozark has hard suspense interlaced with hints of tenderness, a seriousness that is set off by the odd bit of humour, and a satisfying combination of stylish production and absolute plausibility. The first season leaves you with an open ended finale that suggests that the troubles Marty has battled all season are only just beginning and the show, despite its shortcomings, provides a solid ten episodes of entertainment.

IT (2017)

A fear of clowns is one if the most common phobias, but for Stephen King fans, the first word that comes to mind when they think of clowns is not coulrophobia. The word is IT. Written in 1986, the paving slab of a novel about Pennywise the Dancing Clown gave people a whole new reason to be afraid. Then in 1990, it was first adapted to screen, starring Tim Curry as the title character. I have neither read the book, or seen the first adaptation. But the other night, I saw the rehashed version of the film. The trailers looked sufficiently hair raising (even to those of us not afraid of clowns) and the reviews were good, so I braved the Friday night cinema to give it a look.

Unlike the original, which was set in 1960, the 2017 version, starring Bill Skarsgård as the malevolent clown, was brought forward to 1988. Set in Derry (Maine), IT tells the story of seven teenage friends over one summer as they are terrorized by different manifestations of their own worst fears. Led by Bill Denbrough, whose own younger brother Georgie disappears, the friends – collectively known as The Losers Club – band together to try and bring an end to the horror, and to the murderous clown responsible for causing it.

IT opens really well, and the scenes where young Georgie encounters Pennywise in the sewer are in fact some of the best (and more affecting) parts in the entire film. But from there, it kinds of drops off. The first portion of the film is largely just an introduction to The Losers Club, interspersed with individual scenes where Pennywise appears to the kids in the forms of their worst fears. It had the potential to flow nicely but these scenes are singular and feel disjointed, not really building on each other enough to really work properly. The latter half of the film is where it all starts to finally come together, and where the Losers face evil not just from the shape shifting fiend who wants to devour them, but from the bully who is at the very least, equally intent on causing suffering. 

In terms of graphics and the special effects, IT does quite well. It’s a bit of a step up from the fake teeth and face paint of the original (no offence, Tim) and I actually think it’s the kind of film that could benefit from a 3D viewing to make it really pop, so to speak. There’s a particular scene involving Pennywise emerging ferociously from a projector screen that I’m fairly certain made the entire cinema jump. One thing I did really appreciate was that the film wasn’t heavy on the gratuitous gore. The violent or bloody aspects of the film (keep an eye out for the bathroom scene) were almost tasteful in comparison to some modern ideals of horror, and I think in this case it definitely worked to the movie’s advantage. 

In terms of actual scares though, I rather felt IT to be somewhat lacking. There were a couple of mildly tense moments, and there was at least one scene that got a scream from one of the other people in the cinema. But rather than the clown, for me it was his other forms that were more unnerving. In particular, the painted woman that plagues Stanley had a kind of menacing presence that gave me the wiggins, and Eddie’s leper was especially gruesome. As for Pennywise himself, I found no true horror there. This wasn’t helped by the fact that the voice adopted by Skarsgård is a kind of raspy lisp, which I found more grating than spooky. 

Honestly, IT felt a lot more like a kind of coming of age drama than a real horror, with perhaps more focus on the themes of friendship and (loss of) innocence, and less actual scares. Whilst the film was still enjoyable despite its shortfalls, I think I was expecting something a little more…creepy. With a second instalment in the works, I hope that chapter two will not skimp on the heart (and the charm) of the Losers, but improve on the scares, and give the opportunity to make something genuinely terrifying.