Film Review: ONCE UPON A TIME IN … HOLLYWOOD (USA 2019) ****

Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood Poster
A faded television actor and his stunt double strive to achieve fame and success in the film industry during the final years of Hollywood’s Golden Age in 1969 Los Angeles.

One of the year’s most anticipated films, Quentin Tarantino’s 9th and latest film, ONCE UPON A TIME IN … HOLLYWOOD follows the misadventures of has-been star Rick Danton and his stunt double and best friend Cliff Booth set in 1969 Hollywood.  The action takes place in three separate days on February the 8th and 9th and August the 8th, the night of the Charles Manson murders.

To reveal more of the plot would spoil ones entertainment of the film.

Tarantino is so much loved by cineastes that he can get away with murder.    ONCE UPON A TIME also contains minor racist humour, regarding Mexicans, Germans and Indians.  “Don’t cry in front of the Mexicans”  “Fresh sauerkraut” “The only good Indian is a dead Indian” are three such lines uttered in the film.

There are just so many impressive plusses in the film.  Foremost are the performances from the two leads, Leonardo DiCaprio as the has-been Hollywood star Rick Danton and Brad Pitt as his stunt double Cliff Booth.  DiCaprio exhibits the paranoia and childishness of a spoilt star while in perfect contrast Pitt plays the super-cool macho stuntman that supports Dalton but at  the same time needs him for employment – a excellent irony of a relationship.  Apparently Tarantino noticed the relationship between an actor and his stunt double and their support for each other and based his script from that keen observation.  To make matters more interesting, their relationship unfolds in the background of the infamous Charles Manson murders which included the death of Roman Polanski’s wife, Sharon Tate.  Or so it seems.  Tarantino has played with History as in his best film INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS and he does the same (not to be detailed in this review as to reveal a spoiler) in this film.

The film contains lots of references to the late 60’s films (as the film is set in 1969) that those growing up during those times will find particularly nostalgic.  Seen in posters in the film or heard announced on the radio are films like Jack Smight’s 1969 THE ILLUSTRATED MAN, Gordon Douglas’ Tony Rome 1968 LADY IN CEMENT, Richard Wilson’s 1968 3 IN THE ATTIC, Mike Sarne’s 1968 JOANNA, Phil Karlson’s Matt Helm flick the 1968 THE WRECKING CREW and Alexander Mackendrick’s 1967 DON’T MAKE WAVES the latter two films also starring Sharon Tate. These are not classics but the typical type of films common that help mold many a cineaste, me included.  It is puzzling why Tarantino did not include the Roman Polanski’s 1967 film THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS in the list.  Fans are also in for a treat with a scene in THE WRECKING CREW where Sharon Tate takes down Nancy Kwan.  If these films are not enough, Tarantino also creates fake films starring Rick Dalton and other stars at the time like Telly Savalas and Ann-Margaret.

Cliff Booth gets fired from a job on a Hollywood set.  Tarantino shows the incident that led to the firing in the film’s best and funniest scene where Cliff Booth kicks Bice Lee’s (an excellent Mike Moh) ass in a fight on the set of THE GREEN HORNET.

This film, Tarantino’s 9th and reportedly his lasting clearly displays the director’s indulgence in his passion for film within a certain period. There is nothing wrong with this.  Though a little overlong, there are details that can be observed (especially in the background) and tons of references.  No Tarantino film has failed to surprise and this film is no exception.  And with so much detail, ONCE UPON A TIME IN … HOLLYWOOD which premiered in Cannes to a 15-minute standing ovation deserves to be see a second time.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Scf8nIJCvs4

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Film Review: MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS (USA/UK 2018) ***1/2

Mary Queen of Scots Poster
Trailer

Mary Stuart’s attempt to overthrow her cousin Elizabeth I, Queen of England, finds her condemned to years of imprisonment before facing execution.

Director:

Josie Rourke

Writers:

Beau Willimon (screenplay by), John Guy (based on the book “Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart” by)

MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS is yet another historical drama made on Queen Mary this time around, updated with strong feminine content and with more openness regarding sexual orientation.  The film is directed by Josie Rourke and adapted by Beau Willimon based on John Guy’s biography My Heart Is My Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots.

The centre of the story is the 1569 conflict between their two countries and the two queens Mary (Saorise Ronan) and Elizabeth of England (Margot Robbie).

Both ladies Ronan and Robbie deliver outstanding Oscar worthy performances that keep the film an intense drama.  Ronan has matured from playing teen characters as in ATONEMENT,  LADY BIRD, BROOKLYN and HANNAH.  Her Irish accent still comes across in her dialogue causing a slight distraction.  Their confrontation scene is the highlight of the movie, though it was believed the two never met in person.  The excuse: “No one must know that we have met together,” as on queen says in confidence to another.

The film updates the feminist movement with Mary insisting that no male shall tell her or Elizabeth what to do.  Mary is always shown in control, especially over her often drunken husband, Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden).  The film also shows Mary not only a strong individual and queen but a determined and always correct one in her decisions.  It helps that the film is directed by a woman.

Though the film contains a few battle scenes, this is not an action picture.  In fact, it is a strong female film, but one of those rare films that can also be enjoyed by both sexes.  In one moving scene a humble male subject confesses that he would gladly lay down his life for his queen.  Mary replies that in heaven, all will be equal.  Action is substituted by high royal drama, as the too queens plan the future of their Kingdoms.  Queen Elizabeth is unable to bear children.  If Queen Mary bears a male boy, after married to an English protestant, her son will rule that will unite both Scotland and England.  But Mary is quick to point out that when they are both dead, it does not matter who rules.

The film is a handsome period piece that comes complete with stunning Scots landscape (cinematography by John Mathieson) and top royal costumes (especially the wardrobe of the two queens).  Elizabeth looks sufficiently nasty with her red hair as did Glenda Jackson when she played that part in the 70’s.

A brief history lesson at the end of the film explains a few facts that puts this story into historical perspective.  It is mentioned that Elizabeth was the daughter of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn (as popularized by Charles Jarrott’s film ANNE OF THE THOUSAND DAYS) who was beheaded for not bearing the King a male child.  The film also goes on to reveal that Richard, the son of Mary eventually ruled England and Scotland while Queen Elizabeth continued her rue for 14 years.

Christmas season often seems a better quality of films, and MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS, that has so far garnered positive reviews, marks a solid royal drama that I have not enjoyed since Anthony Harvey’s THE LION IN WINTER (the counterpart male royal drama).

It should be noted the film’s inaccuracies that will mislead audiences.  Historians insist that the two queens never met, were never cordial as friends and Mary never had a Scots but a French accent.

Trailer:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wnqjSgMU36U

I, TONYA (USA 2017) ***1/2

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I, Tonya Poster
Trailer

2:24 |Trailer
Competitive ice skater Tonya Harding rises amongst the ranks at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, but her future in the activity is thrown into doubt when her ex-husband intervenes.

Director:

Craig Gillespie

Writer:

Steven Rogers (screenplay)

In 1994, the figure-skating world was shocked by the brutal attack on US medal hopeful Nancy Kerrigan.  The more shocking news was that the attack was allegedly conceived and executed by those close to — and perhaps including — rival figure skater Tonya Harding.  The film tells Tonya’s story and thus the title I, TONYA.

The story is revealed in tongue in cheek events with humour and irony while keeping to the main dramatic details.

Sad, funny but real this biopic of the infamous American figure Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) plays like a mockumentary as the film is bookended by interviews of the main characters 20 years after ‘the incident’.  The film then unfolds in chronological order with Tonya as a child brought to the skating rink as a skating prodigy by her mother who would often slap her around for not doing her best.  

‘The incident’ as described in those exact words in the film itself refers to the breaking of rival skater Nancy Kerrigan’s knee by Tonya’s ex-husband.  The question was whether she knew of the plot.  As the film explains she likely did not at the start, as it was all Jeff Gillooly’s (Sebastian Stan) idea but when she did get nailed for it, she was then banned from figure skating in any organization for life, a sentence in her own words, that was worst than prison.

Films have been often made of heroes and survivors, but it is seldom that one is made of white redneck trailer trash.  That is Tonya Harding.  But director Gillespie and writer Steven Rogers portray the skater as someone America loved to hate, but also paints her, despite her volatile and fierce personality someone vulnerable to her surroundings and acquaintances.  She is treated brutally (physically and emotionally) by both her two closest relatives, hers husband and mother (Allison Janney).

Director Gillespie remembers that I, TONYA is after all a film about the sport of figure skating.  The segments of skating have to be good and they are.  Compare the recent tennis film BATTLE OF THE SEXES which made the mistake of including no exciting matches in it.  Her triple axel at the 1991 championships is shown beautifully in slow motion.

Gillespie elicits some mighty fine performances from his cast most notably Robbie in the title role as well as Janney as her stern mother, LaVona.

The dialogue though in everyday words are at times so predictable, one can say the words just before the characters utter them.  In one scene, after LaVona after throwing a knife that sticks into her daughter’s arms utter the words: “Every family has its ups and downs.”   A comical line though the words are stolen from the play and film THE LION IN WINTER.  But there are some good lines in the script as when LaVona says (and really believes) that she sacrificed being a loving mother so that Tonya can grow up to become a fierce skater.

Though the film deals partly with the daughter/mother relationship, it shows for once that the relationship is a sour irreconcilable one.  Still the film finally gains the sympathy of the skater, that in her own words describes herself as the one America grew to hate.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OXZQ5DfSAAc

 

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Film Review: GOODBYE CHRISTOPHER ROBIN (UK 2017)

 

Goodbye Christopher Robin Poster
Trailer

A behind-the-scenes look at the life of author A.A. Milne and the creation of the Winnie the Pooh stories inspired by his son C.R. Milne.

Director:

Simon Curtis

 

There is one scene that sums up Simon Curtis’ film on the life of author A.A. Milne and the creation of the Winnie the Pooh stories inspired by his son C.R. Milne.  It is the one where father, A.A.  fondly called Blue (Domhnall Gleeson) serves his son fondly called Billie (Will Tilston) porridge he had made as the nanny has the day off.  Billie lifts his spoon to reveal a real lumpy porridge.  That is exactly the way director Simon Curtis (MY WEEK WITH MARILYN) has served his film and it is going to go down lumpy down the audience’s throats.

The film, however, does open impressively with shots (cinematography by Ben Smithard) of the beautiful English woods with sunlight beaming down the trees and spreading among the flowers, pretty much like the pictures of a Winnie the Pooh children’s book.  Blue receives a letter from the postman, the wife, Daphne (Margot Robbie) looking on, obvious that the letter brings bad news of the death of their son who has gone off to fight in the War.

The film tells the story of Blue’s creation of Winnie the Pooh and how the fame aversely affected the family especially the impressionable child Billie.  Blue goes to war and comes back with shell shock.  His evil wife Dafne, insists he keeps writing and he eventually lies it and takes the whole family to live in the country.  Evil wife gets upset ,leaves and threatens never to return unless the husband writes again.  Father and son bond in the woods and father creates Winnie the Pooh (the name Winnie coming from the rescued bear from Winnipeg, Canada).   The boy, Billie also appears in the Pooh books and known as Christopher Robin.  Fame and publicity prevents the boy from playing and having a normal childhood.  Confrontation results between husband and son (now played by Alex Lawther).  Amidst all this is the cheerful nanny, Olive (the wonderful Kelly Macdonald) who can never do any wrong.  She gets to tell the parents off and to calls the evil mother a horse in her face.

As the film is not based on a book, one wonders where all the material for the story comes from.  One can surmise that a lot has been imagined by the scriptwriters Frank Cottrell-Boyce Simon Vaughan.  The film turns into sentimental mush at the end with the news of the son’s death.  Dad, mum and Olive are grieving and more lumpy mush again when it turns out when Billie shows up.  The father son reunion is neither credible as well.

Robbie and Gleeson sport silly English accents.  At least Macdonald, the only one worth watching in this silly enterprise gets to keep her Scots accent.

The film has one believe that Winnie the Pooh did wonders for world peace just because one soldier fighting in the trenches hummed a Pooh tune.

The film ends with old photographs of the real characters in the film followed yes, by old photos of the real toys of the bear tiger, piglet and all.  As if the film is not sentimental enough.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rX1oe9JmtUw

GOODBYE CHRISTOPHER ROBIN

Happy Birthday: Margot Robbie

margotrobbie.jpgHappy Birthday actor Margot Robbie

Born: July 2, 1990 in Dalby, Queensland, Australia

Counts True Romance (1993) as one of her all-time favorite movies.

She turned down the role of Sam in Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014), which eventually went to Emma Stone.

 

 

ABOUT TIME
2013
dir. Richard Curtis
Stars:
Domhnall Gleeson
Rachel McAdams

MOVIE POSTERTHE WOLF OF WALL STREET
2013
dir. Martin Scorsese
Stars:
Leonardo DiCaprio
PJ Byrne

 

Movie Review: WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT (USA 2016) ***

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whiskeytangofoxtrotbaWHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT (USA 2016) ***
Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa

Starring: Tina Fey, Margot Robbie, Martin Freeman, Billy Bob Thornton, Alfred Molina

Review by Gilber Seah

WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT is the military communications term for WTF which stands for….what everyone is familiar with. The title sounds more appropriate than the lengthy title of the memoir called The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan written by Kim Baker about her own experiences as an overseas reporter.

The film charts Baker’s life story while reporting in various cities in Afghanistan. She leaves boyfriend Chris (Josh Charles) to fend for himself as she leaves for an initial 3 months. She befriend the only other female journalist on arrival, Tanya (Margot Robbie). As Baker learns the ropes and gets her reporting done, she learns much about the state of Afghanistan, though these tend to be feminine biased. She falls for a fellow reporter, Scotsman Iain (Martin Freeman). She learns a few painful life lessons as well. All this seriousness is however, conveyed through in a humorous manner.

The film is directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa who did an ok job also with I LOVE YOU, PHILLIP MORRIS.

An outright flaw is the film’s preachiness on women’s issues. One can understand where this is coming from as the film is produced and performed by Tina Fey based on a female’s novel. But one would have expected the all male scriptwriter and directing trio to at least moderate some of the material. The romance overshadows what is going on to the point that the film almost turns out into another annoying Hollywood romantic comedy. The lady saves her lover at all costs with her ingenuity? It is really hard to take in as fact what she did in the film to save Iain. Also, the film praises many feminist issues like the right of afghan women to gossip and socialize at the well, their right to ensure foreigners cover their heads and not hold hands (two scenes has the Fey character admonished for those two ‘sins’) and the women’s roles are much strongly written than the males. The men exist to service the purpose of the female characters. There is the alpha male security of Baker, a hunky no-brain ready to have sex with her at her command. Her main love interest Iain is always there to beckon her ever wish and woos her to no end. And at the social gatherings, the men never have anything important to say. The chief male, General Hollanek is depicted as an egoistic goat who succumbs to Baker’s plans while the Afghan chief of the Interior Ali Massoud Sadiq (Alfred Molina) does more of the same.

The female audience may be delighted however at the Afghan war being looked at from a different perspective. Also, the war with all its horrors is depicted as just that, though doused with quite the bit of humour. One can always be reminded that this is an SNL film – if such a thing exists – produced by Lorne Michaels (SNL) and Fey.

In one segment of the film, Baker is asked the reason she went to Afghanistan. Her answer that she realized that day in and day out she has moved backwards in life as metaphorically observed in her stationary bike that moved backwards after constant use and that she should move forward, one can only wish that the directors’ reason for making this movie also could have achieved this same goal. WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT could have been better, but as the title implies WTF, it leads nowhere. WTF?

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