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ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD (2019) – FILM REVIEW – A $90 MILLION “ARTHOUSE” & FETISHISTIC CLASSIC!

ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD (2019) – FILM REVIEW

Directed and Written by: Quentin Tarantino

Produced by: David Heyman, Shannon McIntosh, Quentin Tarantino

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, Timothy Olyphant, Margaret Qualley, Austin Butler, Al Pacino, Mike Moh, Bruce Dern, Dakota Fanning, Damien Lewis, Kurt Russell and many, many more.

Cinematography: Robert Richardson

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**

From watching the trailers for Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood (2019), I remember thinking: this looks so cool and I’m glad they haven’t given away much of the story here. Because, I hate those darned trailers which give away the story!

So, you watch Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film and then you realise, after the excessive running time, THERE ISN’T REALLY ANY STORY as such! Okay, DiCaprio’s character suffers an existential career crisis but that’s kind of it. Instead, you get mostly a nigh-on three-hour historical and cultural nostalgia trip down memory lane filtered through the artistic and fetishistic vision of one of cinemas great filmmaking iconoclasts.

Once Upon A Time in Hollywood (2019), is essentially an arthouse character study where you get to hang out with two-and-a-half lead protagonists, plus a whole army of fictional and ‘real’ life supporting characters from the 1969 Hollywood era. Our two main “heroes” are neurotic, alcoholic B-movie actor, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), and tough, handsome and laconic, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). The two characters contrast and complement each other perfectly. Moreover, the star quality, chemistry and fine performances of the lead actors bind the movie together amazingly.

Brad Pitt is especially brilliant. His character is not, until the violent ending, given much to do story wise; however, he does it with such charm. He imbues a character who has accepted his place in the world with such easy-going humour and control, it is an absolute joy to watch. It’s an iceberg performance which seems shallow on the surface, but has hidden and unsaid depth. I really wanted to know more about his character, especially what appeared to be a very colourful backstory.

DiCaprio, on the other hand, has the showier performance. Edgy, hungover and insecure due to his characters’ fading Hollywood career, DiCaprio gives another fantastic movie performance. He commits to the Dalton character and features in some wonderful sketches which pay homage and parody B-movies, TV variety shows and old TV Westerns. What I loved was his ability to demonstrate different levels of acting skills. DiCaprio can fuck up Dalton’s acting on set one moment, but then deliver acting on a Shakespearean level the next.

Margot Robbie, who we know is a brilliant actor in her own right, alas, is not afforded the same level of care in regard to the characterisation of Sharon Tate. More of an ornamental character in the film, she looks great going to the cinema, packing a suitcase, driving and generally just being effervescent. Yet, it’s truly is one of the film’s major flaws that it doesn’t make more of Robbie’s acting talent. Even the fantastic ending, which Tarantino, takes incredible liberties with in regard to actual events, finds Tate’s character development unfortunately left bereft of emotion.

Similarly, the Hollywood cameos echoing throughout the films are pure style over substance. For example Steve McQueen, Roman Polanski and Bruce Lee feature but these are mostly inconsequential encounters. The Bruce Lee representation and scene is actually really funny as Cliff Booth and the martial arts star face off in a hilarious flashback. Typically, Tarantino has caused controversy with his Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) rendition. Personally, I respect that people may be offended, however, it’s more comedic and iconoclastic rather than overt racism. After all, this is a fairy-tale vision of Hollywood and not a documentary. Plus, Tarantino knows he’s going to piss people off so it’s obvious he’s playing with people here.

While Bruce Lee’s persona is playfully satirized or racist depending on your point-of-view, Tarantino’s representation of the Manson family is more damning. It’s clear he absolutely hates hippies, especially acid-looped killer hippies. Dalton and Booth represent the old-school, honest Hollywood working class, so are the antithesis of the drop-out youths. The culture clashes between this era and the new flower-power cults is something Tarantino explores. Charles Manson, who barely features, is a ghost-like figure though. Instead, it is the character of Tex (Austin Butler) and the females of the commune who are most prominent.

Margaret Qualley as Pussycat is especially hypnotic in her role. Exuding both sexuality and acid-drenched nihilism, Pussycat is a siren hitcher, luring drivers to symbolically crash against the cliffs. For me, Tarantino should have made way more of the old and new California culture clash themes, as they resonated powerfully when on screen. Plus, the scenes on the commune were actually quite creepy, so more should have been made of this threat from a dramatic perspective. Lastly, the irreverent and violent final act carnage exploits the clashing of these two different cultures, but more could have done throughout to enhance this dynamic.

Overall, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (2019) is a near three-hour arthouse classic. If you like films about film and TV making, driving, feet, ensemble casts, films within films, cinema-going, Los Angeles, more feet; and hanging with the marvellous DiCaprio and Pitt in a 1969 setting, then you will love this beautifully rendered and lovingly crafted film about Hollywood. Otherwise, you will probably find it a boring, indulgent and style-over-substance folly. Either way you have to admire Tarantino’s exquisitely controlled writing and direction. He certainly does!!

Safe to say though Tarantino will not care either way, because most of his filmic output has made a lot of money at the box office. This has now allowed him the luxury, like that of true cinema artists such as Kubrick, Altman and Antonioni, to make whatever films a studio is prepared to give him the money for. He’s basically making films for himself and doesn’t care if the audience likes it or not.

I personally found myself magnetically drawn to Tarantino’s vision and from a purely filmmaking and artistic perspective I was totally immersed throughout. Having said that, if the incessant driving and shots of dirty feet were cut and Dalton and Booth had been given a proper plot, rather than the thin stranded narrative within the impressive gallery of cameos and set-pieces, I would definitely expect to be writing about one of the best films ever made.

Mark: 9.5 out of 11

A STAR IS BORN (2018): OSCAR BINGO #1 & CINEMA REVIEW

A STAR IS BORN (2018): OSCAR BINGO AND FILM REVIEW

Directed by: Bradley Cooper

Produced by: Bill Gerber, Jon Peters, Bradley Cooper, Todd Phillips, Lynette Howell Taylor

Screenplay by: Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper, Will Fetters

Based on: A Star Is Born by William A. Wellman, Robert Carson, Dorothy Parker, Alan Campbell

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Andrew Dice Clay, Dave Chappelle, Sam Elliott

Cinematography: Matthew Libatique

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When a star is born others will die. Some will fade. Some will collapse. Some will burn bright like the sun before vanishing. That is the cycle of life and the narrative of this standard film classic. Yet, if you’re going to cover an old traditional then you’ve got to be confident you’re going to do it justice. It could be considered an easy track to lay down by replicating a story done three times before, however, if you get it wrong and play a bum note then you’ve ruined the song. Safe to say that writer, director and star Bradley Cooper has thrown his heart and soul into this story and with on-screen partner Lady Gaga, and an incredible production team, they’ve collectively knocked it out of the park. For this review I’d like to play a bit of Oscar bingo and consider the merits of the film along with the players award chances.

BEST FILM CHANCES: 8 out of 10

This is a film about dreams: living, broken and dying dreams. It’s a beautifully timeless tale of two people who fall in love but their trajectories veer in opposite directions. Bradley Cooper is Jackson Maine: a successful rock star still selling out stadiums and seemingly with everything positive on the outside. Inside though he’s crumbling; he suffers from tinnitus, alcoholism and the inner demons of a broken family past that drugs, booze, music and his long-suffering brother, portrayed by the excellent Sam Elliott, cannot block out. When a chance meeting with a bar singer occurs, sparks fly with Ally, as she suddenly brings a burst of light and hope into his life. While she is insecure off-stage she nails it on-stage; not surprising as she is portrayed by pop mega-star Lady Gaga. The two fall in love but the path of romance, while powerful on and off stage for a while, ultimately struggles with both his addiction and Ally’s subsequent pop success. Given the familiarity of the story the ‘Best Film’ chances could be slightly hampered in regard to originality. But overall it has the feel of both an epic and powerful love story combined with some tragically intimate moments that will make it one of the front runners when the nominations come out.

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BEST DIRECTOR CHANCES: 7 out of 10

While this is his is directorial debut, Bradley Cooper has infused the story with an energy, immediacy and intimacy akin to that of a veteran filmmaker. The on-stage scenes put you at the heart of the gigs, while his sterling performance and that of Lady Gaga’s absolutely soar. There is a core reliability of emotion in so many memorable scenes, from the humour of Ally’s father and his chauffeur circle of friends, to the happy times of Ally and Jackson in love, and the more tempestuous boozy periods. Cooper’s helming is consistent and it is clearly a labour of love as he successfully melds romance, tragedy and backstage musical in an impressively directed story.

BEST ACTRESS CHANCES: 9 out of 10

Lady Gaga is a ridiculous name but it’s hard to forget. While not a massive fan of her pop persona she has released a plethora of songs catchier that the bubonic plague. I had only seen her acting before in a couple of things, notably American Horror Story: Hotel, but due to the hysterical style of that gruesome anthology it’s difficult to tell if she had much range. However, as the working class Ally, she infuses the character with a bright-eyed innocence and fiery passion that wins you over immediately. Her and Cooper’s chemistry is tremendous and very believable and those eyes; they just made me melt at times. Oh, and of course THAT voice. What a voice and what amazing interpretations of so many great songs. Lady Gaga will go very close to the Best Actress Oscar in my mind.

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BEST ACTOR CHANCES: 7 out of 10

Cooper directs himself very well and his quietly impactful performance both on and off stage really got me in the heart. The pathos and emotion he conveys in charting the collapse of a man crumbling from the inside out is very powerful. Cooper reminded me of a younger Jeff Bridges and indeed, Sam Elliott with his performance encapsulating a talented and pained artist who is never happier than when on stage. Off stage the demons are still there haunting him emotionally and physically. Being harsh, one could say the familiarity of the character – a grizzled alcoholic musician battling addiction – could go against his Oscar chances, but Cooper’s performance remains one of nuance and empathy.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: 8 out of 10

There are a couple of serious contenders here with Andrew Dice Clay giving a sly comedic turn as Ally’s protective father. Moreover, there’s the battle-born gravitas of Sam Elliott as Jackson’s long suffering road manager and brother. The scene where he puts his drunken brother to bed in order to stops him choking on his own vomit, protecting yet also reviled by this broken man, impacts greatly. Elliott just nails his role and the film could have benefitted even more from his presence throughout. Nonetheless, he steals those scenes he does inhabit and will certainly get nominated.

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BEST SONG CHANCES: 10 out of 10

Shallow will win the Best Oscar no doubt. When introduced acapella by Lady Gaga you only get a suggestion of its’ power. However, when she launches into it on stage it is an absolutely memorable and stand-out musical moment. The music throughout is linked powerfully to the emotion of the characters from Jason Isbell’s composition Maybe It’s Time to the final heartfelt song, I’ll Never Love Again, sang beautifully by Lady Gaga. Even the sly satirical digs at the soulless pop that Ally sings are done with skill. The juxtaposition of their plasticity versus the realness of the rock music delivered by Ally and Jackson creates another layer of musical depth in a consistently brilliant soundtrack.

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OVERALL

A Star Is Born (2018) is a great cinematic experience with every person involved in the production at the top of their game. The story is familiar but the performances, characterisation, direction and the songs all combine to create a very emotional and human journey. I’m not the greatest fan of musicals but this one had me hooked from start to finish and is a fine example of classic Hollywood genre storytelling at its best.

Mark: 9 out of 11