Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)

2019 #120
Quentin Tarantino | 161 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA, UK & China / English | 18 / R

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

The 9th film by Quentin Tarantino follows the fortunes of struggling actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman and best mate Cliff Booth (an Oscar-winning Brad Pitt) over a couple of days in Los Angeles, 1969, when they were next-door neighbours to one Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie)…

I haven’t reviewed Once Upon a Time until now because I didn’t have much to say about it (even my Letterboxd ‘review’ was just a comment on its variable title presentation). Even after reflecting on it, and reading other’s critical reactions, then reflecting on it some more (for over eight months at this point), I didn’t have much to contribute. Why was that? And I’ve kind of realised it’s because the film didn’t make me feel very much.

Sure, there are moments where it did. There are plenty of scenes that are amusing, to varying degrees. The tension as Cliff explores the house of an old friend that’s been occupied by a bunch of hippies. The catharsis and humour of the ultra-violent climax, and the attendant cognitive dissonance of whether we should be revelling so in this historically-revisionist execution of real people — not to mention the factors that further complicate that (you know what they are by now).

And overall I didn’t dislike the film. I wasn’t bored, despite the length; if anything, that helps suck you into the world of 1969. You can certainly feel Tarantino’s love for the era, his desire to recreate — and, indeed, improve — it. (It’s also clear that he really wants to make another Western. The excerpted scenes from Rick’s TV pilot go on for ages, ultimately contributing nothing to the overall story, other than getting to hang out in a ’60s TV Western.) The three main performances are all very good, DiCaprio and Pitt great both as a double act and in their own storylines, and Robbie off in her own little world in a role that arguably offers little on the page but she breathes so much life into.

“Don’t cry, man. It’s only one blogger's opinion.”

It’s all these successes that mean I do consider Once Upon a Time to be a very good film. But at the same time, I didn’t leave the cinema feeling moved or wowed. I expected the history-changing ending ever since the film’s plot was announced, that expectation only cemented further as I learnt of Tarantino’s love for Tate, so I certainly didn’t leave feeling surprised. It ended, and that was that, and I went home.

Tarantino has talked in the past about how Jackie Brown is a “hangout movie”, where the point is not the story but spending time with the characters, and getting to re-spend that time when you watch the movie again, so that you enjoy it more and more with each viewing. I didn’t really get that feeling from Jackie Brown (I didn’t dislike it, but I was underwhelmed and in no rush to revisit it), but I wonder if that’s how Once Upon a Time will work best. The way it wanders through its loose narrative, before arriving at a climax that is, really, only tangentially related to everything else we’ve been watching, does suggest that’s the goal Tarantino had in mind. I can certainly believe he would like to just hang out in the world of Hollywood, 1969. I suspect that’s the driving factor behind why he even made this movie — getting to imagine an alternate history and career for his characters (I’ve seen interviews where he fills in way more backstory than is actually in the film), and using his clout to literally recreate that time and place in real-life rather than through CGI fill-ins.

So, it’s a movie I’ll surely revisit at some point, which is more than can be said for many a film. Perhaps then I’ll have something to say about it.

5 out of 5

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from this weekend.

Romeo + Juliet (1996)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #77

Hope & despair.
Tragedy & love.
Romeo & Juliet.

Full Title: William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 120 minutes
BBFC: 12
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 1st November 1996 (USA)
UK Release: 28th March 1997
First Seen: VHS, c.1998

Stars
Leonardo DiCaprio (Titanic, The Wolf of Wall Street)
Claire Danes (Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Stardust)

Director
Baz Luhrmann (Strictly Ballroom, Moulin Rogue!)

Screenwriters
Craig Pearce (Strictly Ballroom, Moulin Rogue!)
Baz Luhrmann (Australia, The Great Gatsby)
William Shakespeare (My Own Private Idaho, 10 Things I Hate About You)

Based on
Some play, apparently.

The Story
Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Verona, where we lay our scene. From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, where civil blood makes civil hands unclean. From forth the fatal loins of these two foes, a pair of star-crossed lovers take their life, whose misadventured piteous overthrows doth with their death bury their parents’ strife. The fearful passage of their death-marked love and the continuance of their parents’ rage, which, but their children’s end, naught could remove, is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage.

Our Heroes
Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet, kids from feuding families who fall in love despite that conflict.

Our Villains
The rest of their families, whose animosity to one another, and thereby opposition to the coupling, results in tragedy.

Best Supporting Character
Romeo’s best friend, Mercutio, brought to flamboyant life by Harold Perrineau.

Memorable Quote
“Oh, what’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet” — Juliet

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” — Juliet (rarely misquoted, regularly misunderstood)

Memorable Scene
The prologue, which sets out the film’s stylistic stall with a fast-cut and dramatically-scored montage of ultra-modern imagery to visualise the play’s prologue, as delivered by a TV news anchorwoman. It’s especially effective when paired with the first full scene, where the young men of the Capulet and Montague families clash at a gas station, which is similarly front-loaded with the film’s modern design, fast dialogue, and hyper-editing.

Memorable Music
The other films in the Red Curtain Trilogy (see Next Time) of course have a prominent role for music — one is about dancing, the other is a musical. While you’d think a Shakespeare adaptation would be all about the dialogue, the soundtrack plays a key role in Luhrmann’s vision, and certainly connected with viewers. They even once released a dedicated Music Edition on DVD. There is a score (memorable not least for its variation on O Fortuna, the much-reused O Verona), but it’s the songs by contemporary musicians — the kind of things the characters would listen to, I suppose — that have the greatest effect. Most recognisable is Des’ree’s Kissing You, which plays when the eponymous lovers first meet.

Technical Wizardry
The film is well known for its exuberant camerawork and editing. Obviously much of that is done in post-production, but it required on-set ingenuity as well. For the scene where Romeo and Juliet first kiss in a cramped elevator, the set walls were made in sections which could be raised to let the camera in. In the finished shot the camera circles the pair at speed, meaning the crew had to hurriedly raise the walls to let the camera past but speedily replace them to maintain the illusion.

Making of
Famously, the film modernises the characters’ use of swords and daggers by turning them into the brand names of guns. Shakespeare described Tybalt’s swordsmanship as “showy”, so to retain this for the film actor John Leguizamo worked with a choreographer, John O’Connell, to create a style of gunplay inspired by flamenco dancing.

Previously on…
Romeo + Juliet is the middle film in director Baz Luhrmann’s thematically-linked Red Curtain Trilogy. The first is dancing drama Strictly Ballroom.

Next time…
The Red Curtain Trilogy concluded with Moulin Rouge. There are also plenty of other modern-styled Shakespeare adaptations that you could argue owe this a debt.

Awards
1 Oscar nomination (Art Direction-Set Decoration)
4 BAFTAs (Director, Adapted Screenplay, Music, Production Design)
3 BAFTA nominations (Cinematography, Editing, Sound)
1 Saturn nomination (Costumes)
1 MTV Movie Award (Female Performance (Claire Danes))
5 MTV Movie Awards nominations (including Best Kiss — it lost to Independence Day!)

What the Critics Said
“While Shakespeare might well have applauded Aussie filmmaker Baz Luhrmann’s souped-up version of Romeo and Juliet, traditionalists [including many critics, if you check out Rotten Tomatoes] are sure to despise the psychedelic tunes and the flashy sets of this audacious adaptation. Not to mention Mercutio as drag queen. For all of its departures, Luhrmann’s largely successful reinterpretation is far from irreverent. He takes liberties with the world, but never the words of this achingly beautiful love story. […] Luhrmann, who pitted youthful brio against conventional wisdom in Strictly Ballroom, clearly enjoys thumbing his nose at authority. Perhaps he’s an eternal teenager, or merely a bit mad. In any case, his excesses only prove Shakespeare’s profundity and the timelessness of his themes.” — Rita Kempley, The Washington Post

Score: 72%

What the Public Say
“in the play, and almost every adaptation, Romeo visits Juliet’s tomb, poisons himself and dies, and then Juliet wakes up, sees Romeo dead, and stabs herself to death. In this version, however, Juliet wakes up just as Romeo downs the poison, so she watches him die in her arms. Seeing her slowly start to wake as Romeo prepares to kill himself is almost unbearable. Especially the way the dialogue is manipulated; all the lines remain the same, but are just said at slightly different times (when Juliet laments the fact that Romeo didn’t leave any poison for her, she’s talking to him directly this time). And when Romeo dies, Juliet is left without her monologue, because she’s said everything to Romeo already. So instead, she cries and then wordlessly shoots herself in the head. It’s pretty gut-wrenching.” — Elizabeth, Chris and Elizabeth Watch Movies

Verdict

Shakespeare got a do-over for the MTV generation in this textually faithful re-imagining of arguably the Bard’s most famous work. Above, I alluded to critics’ dismissal of this adaptation — here are some choice quotes: “the kind of violent swank-trash music video that may make you feel like reaching for the remote”; “a classic play thrown in the path of a subway train”; “destined for the trash heap of Shakespeare adaptations”; “a monumental disaster.” I’d argue its subsequent, and largely enduring, success has put those old fuddy-duddies on the wrong side of history. Certainly, the fact it starred heartthrob du jour Leonardo DiCaprio ensured it reached an audience that otherwise would’ve had no interest. Oh, and it won BAFTAs — the film awards of Shakespeare’s homeland — for direction and screenplay. Shows what you know, yankees. Cultural impact aside, it’s a wildly inventive, daring work, which keeps it fresh and exciting even when its mid-’90s antics should by all rights have dated it into oblivion.

#78 will… kick it Jesus-style!

The Revenant (2015)

2016 #103
Alejandro G. Iñárritu | 156 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA, Hong Kong, Taiwan & Canada / English, Pawnee & French | 15 / R

Oscar statue2016 Academy Awards
12 nominations — 3 wins

Winner: Best Actor, Best Director, Best Cinematography.
Nominated: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Film Editing, Best Costume Design, Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects, Best Production Design.

The Revenant is the Oscar-winning, acclaim-gathering story of Hugh Glass, the expert guide for a pelt-collecting group (is that what they are? Is that a thing?) in the Old West, who’s mauled by a bear to within an inch of his life. Eventually betrayed and left for dead by the members of the group who’d vowed to stay with him to the end, Glass somehow survives, and crawls across the wintery wilderness in search of his revenge! And it’s all the more remarkable for being based on a true story… though this retelling contains approximately as many “historical events that actually occurred” as does Game of Thrones.

The main talking point of The Revenant has been Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance, which finally bagged him an Oscar after four unsuccessful nominations (and I’m sure plenty of other roles that he thought might snag him some Academy recognition but didn’t). How much is it acting and how much was it just an endurance test that director Alejandro González Iñárritu subjected him to? Is there a difference? If you have to suffer for great art, Leo certainly did that. In some ways it’s testament to the Academy being able to look past delivery of dialogue as an indication of performance quality, because Glass doesn’t speak much — not when he’s in the company of others, and certainly not when he’s trying to get by on his lonesome, which he is for much of the film. Nonetheless, Leo conveys thoughts and emotions — which do go beyond, “I can’t believe Iñárritu is making me eat this raw liver” — effectively through expression and action.

In some respects it’s a shame the rest of the cast were consequently overshadowed — Leo may spend a huge chunk of the film on his own, but there are frequent cutaways to what everyone else is up to. Tom Hardy is the obvious standout as selfish bastard Fitzgerald, a perfectly detestable but completely believable villain — I’m not saying we’d all sink to his depths, but I’m not convinced most of us are above some of the choices he makes, either. Will Poulter steps outside the comedy roles he’s mostly taken since his Son of Rambow debut to give an effective turn as the group’s youngest, most conflicted member, while Domhnall Gleeson is commanding as the group’s leader. Gleeson was something of a lucky charm last awards season, appearing in no fewer than four Oscar-nominated films, including two that were up for Best Picture. Not only that, but look at his turn here (as an honourable, disaster-struck Captain) alongside his appearances in those other films (a small town nice guy in Brooklyn; an inexperienced evil military commander in Star Wars; a naive, selfish, sort-of-moral, easily-led programmer in Ex Machina) and you can see the kid’s got range.

Far from just an acting showcase, The Revenant is a film of thematic weight. In fact, it’s like an old-fashioned blockbuster — the kind of thing you’d’ve seen in the 1950s (epic revenge Western) or 1970s (bleak revenge Western) as among the year’s biggest movies — crossed with a slow-paced, scenery-loving, meditative arthouse piece. If it’s about anything (beyond, y’know, the plot), it’s surely about nature — both the amazing vastness of natural spaces, but also the brutality of survival. And not just humans, either, which is the go-to simplistic message (“isn’t nature good? aren’t humans bad?”) of such cod-thoughtful fare. Like the rest of nature, humanity is varied: there are some very harsh, cruel acts herein, but also acts of kindness — sometimes perpetrated by the same people.

The avoidance of pat depictions extends to its portrayal of Native Americans, too. They’re neither simplistic Evil Foreigners, nor a “we’re so sorry for how we’ve treated them before, they’re great really” apologia. Instead, they’re just as brutal and as human as the rest of us, and made up of varied groups who behave differently, or even slaughter among themselves. The main band of Indians we see do serve as the film’s villains (as if Fitzgerald wasn’t bad enough), a hunting party acting out an inverted Searchers as they hunt for a kidnapped daughter. In The Searchers the group hunting and killing in search of a girl are the heroes; here, they’re the villains. Makes you think, don’t it? I’m not accusing Iñárritu of casual racism — I imagine that’s exactly their point.

And speaking of Iñárritu, I wonder if this is his first genuine masterpiece. I didn’t care for 21 Grams or Babble, and Birdman was good but overrated. (In fairness, I’ve not seen Biutiful, which people seem to disregard nowadays, or Amores Perros, which is a rare foreign language film in the IMDb Top 250.) It seems like he was a nightmare during production — the budget was set at $60 million, but ultimately more than doubled to $135 million due to delays thanks to his production choices. In hindsight it looks like genius — “I knew it would be amazing so we kept going” — but if it had flopped, I’m sure an awful lot more would’ve been made of Inarritu’s excessively picky directorial style and fractious treatment of the crew, which apparently led Tom Hardy to try to strangle him…

At the Oscars, I was pulling for Roger Deakins to make it 13th time lucky, or for Mad Max to do a technical sweep and take cinematography with it (not undeservedly); but having now actually seen Lubezki’s work on The Revenant, it’s hard to deny it’s an immensely deserving winner. His mastery of all elements of the form is on regular display: the use of light (all natural!), perspective, lenses, focus; the single-shot techniques he and Iñárritu learnt for Birdman are put to superior use here, creating some stunning sequences (rather than taking over the entire movie). It looks incredible on Blu-ray, too — so detailed, crisp, epic. If anything was going to convince me 4K was an idea worth investing in, it’s material like this. (The cost of a new TV, new Blu-ray player, re-buying films, and the real estate needed in the lounge for a screen big enough to appreciate it puts the other half me off again.)

The film’s biggest flaw is that it goes on a bit too long in the middle. I’m not saying it needs to be a fast-paced thrill-ride, I just think it lingers a little longer than it needs to in places. Individual shots are beautiful, but the sheer volume of them stretches the centre part thin. There’s probably one too many action sequences where Indians attack and our hero has to escape, not least the one that ends in a too-obviously-CGI dive off a cliff. Equally, for every one of those there’s an incredible sequence, like the opening Indian attack. For a film that could easily be described as arthouse-y and thematically-driven, there are some truly stunning action scenes. The long middle means you couldn’t really call it “an action movie”, but focus on the first and last acts and it absolutely is.

I slipped in the word “masterpiece” a few paragraphs back, and I’d wager that’s what The Revenant is. It’s not perfect, and I don’t know that I’d say it’s the best film of last year either; but it is magnificently made, telling its story in a way only cinema can truly manage.

5 out of 5

The Revenant is out on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK as of yesterday.

It placed 4th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

Gangs of New York (2002)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #35

America was born in the streets

Country: USA & Italy
Language: English
Runtime: 168 minutes
BBFC: 18
MPAA: R

Original Release: 20th December 2002
UK Release: 9th January 2003
First Seen: cinema, 2003

Stars
Leonardo DiCaprio (Titanic, The Revenant)
Daniel Day-Lewis (My Left Foot, Lincoln)
Cameron Diaz (There’s Something About Mary, My Sister’s Keeper)
Jim Broadbent (Moulin Rouge!, Another Year)
Liam Neeson (Schindler’s List, Kingdom of Heaven)

Director
Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas, The Departed)

Screenwriters
Jay Cocks (The Age of Innocence, Silence)
Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)
Kenneth Lonergan (The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle, Margaret)

Story by
Jay Cocks (Strange Days, De-Lovely)

Inspired by
The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld, a non-fiction book written in 1927 by Herbert Asbury.

The Story
New York City, 1846: after his father is murdered in a fight by fellow gang leader Bill ‘the Butcher’, young Amsterdam Vallon is dumped in an orphanage. Sixteen years later, he returns to the Five Points district. With revenge in mind, he tries to establish himself with the ruling gang and get close to their leader — Bill.

Our Hero
In the first of his five (to date) collaborations with Scorsese (or six if you count that advertising short they were paid an insane amount for), Leonardo DiCaprio is Amsterdam Vallon, son of a murdered gang leader who, decades later, plots his revenge. His nemesis is a cunning so-and-so, however…

Our Villain
Although he’s a ruthless killer, and the unquestionable villain from the outset, Daniel Day-Lewis manages to render Bill a perversely charming creation, who unavoidably captivates your attention whenever he’s on screen.

Best Supporting Character
Priest Vallon, Amsterdam’s father, only appears in the opening sequence, but his influence and death hangs over the rest of the movie. That’s why you need an actor of Liam Neeson’s calibre for the part, and of course such casting pays off.

Memorable Quote
“I’m 47. 47 years old. You know how I stayed alive this long? All these years? Fear. The spectacle of fearsome acts. Somebody steals from me, I cut off his hands. He offends me, I cut out his tongue. He rises against me, I cut off his head, stick it on a pike, raise it high up so all on the streets can see. That’s what preserves the order of things. Fear.” — Bill

Memorable Scene
Scorsese captures an entire lifecycle in New York’s Five Points within a single tracking shot, which begins with immigrants arriving fresh off the boat and ends with coffins lined up on the quay.

Memorable Music
I have mixed feelings about U2 (because, y’know, Bono), but the theme they crafted for GangsThe Hands That Built America — is a pretty good track, and sits very appropriately at the end of the movie. It was Oscar-nominated, but lost to Eminem’s Lose Yourself from 8 Mile.

Letting the Side Down
Scorsese tried to make Gangs of New York for ages. At one point, he wanted Meryl Streep for the lead female role. He ended up with Cameron Diaz. Say no more, eh.

Making of
Unable to film in New York, which no longer looked like it did back in the mid-1800s, the production was mounted on a large set at Rome’s Cinecittà Studio. According to Wikipedia, production designer Dante Ferretti constructed “over a mile of mid-nineteenth century buildings, consisting of a five-block area of Lower Manhattan, including the Five Points slum, a section of the East River waterfront and two full-sized sailing ships, a thirty-building stretch of lower Broadway, a patrician mansion, and replicas of Tammany Hall, a church, a saloon, a Chinese theater, and a gambling casino.” Now that is a set!

Awards
10 Oscar nominations (Picture, Director, Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis), Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Costume Design, Film Editing, Sound, Original Song)
1 BAFTA (Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis))
11 BAFTA nominations (Film, Director, Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Music, Production Design, Costume Design, Editing, Sound, Visual Effects, Make Up/Hair)
2 World Stunt Award nominations (Best Fight (the opening), Best Stunt Coordinator and/or 2nd Unit Director)
1 Teen Choice Award nomination (Choice Movie Liplock)

What the Critics Said
“The ambition is immense. This is Scorsese’s version of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation and Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate and there are echoes of Kurosawa, Eisenstein and Visconti, as well as the nod to Welles […] As with Heaven’s Gate, judgment on this film must await Scorsese’s longer version. Nevertheless, this remains an astonishing achievement, a film with a passionate sense of life, by one of the greatest filmmakers at work today.” — Philip French, The Observer

Score: 75%

What the Public Say
“This movie, even if it ended with Amsterdam’s degradation rather than his triumph, would be fabulous, probably only inferior to Raging Bull and Goodfellas among Scorsese’s oeuvre. The problem is that the movie is nearly three hours long, and that the movie continues after Amsterdam’s maiming. There is a marvelous story to be told about American tyranny, about the immigrant experience, about just how firmly entrenched the powerful are. Do you choose bellicose racism as Bill does, or do you throw your lot in with benevolent corruption as Tweed does? It hardly seems to matter; you will be expunged and forgotten in the slop and grime of the Five Points all the same while someone else wears a tall hat and eats well.” — speakerformediocrities, Seeing Things Secondhand

Verdict

Gangs of New York ended up with a bit of a mixed reception when it finally came out in 2002, which is only to be expected after Scorsese had been intending to make it for over 20 years, and the version he had shot was stuck in editing for a year (considering all the Director’s Cuts we get nowadays, why have we never had Scorsese’s original 48-minutes-longer cut?) It’s undoubtedly a compromised film, then, but one that retains a rich atmosphere, engaging performances (even if it suffers from two of the leads, DiCaprio and Diaz, being two of the least accomplished), and an impressive sense of scale. It may have a relatively simplistic revenge-tale throughline, but class swirls around it.

#36 will be… 攻殻機動隊.

Shutter Island (2010)

2015 #73
Martin Scorsese | 138 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Shutter IslandAdapted from a novel by Dennis Lehane (whose work also inspired Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone), the fourth collaboration between Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio stars the latter as US Marshal Edward Daniels, who in 1954 is dispatched with this new partner (Mark Ruffalo) to the Ashecliffe facility on the titular island, a prison/hospital for violent, mentally ill criminals run by Dr Cawley (Ben Kingsley) and Dr Naehring (Max von Sydow), where one of the patients has disappeared from her locked room. Her presumed escape seems to be impossible, the staff are remarkably unhelpful, and Daniels has a theory about something much darker and more sinister being conducted on the island… Naturally there’s an almighty twist, which will either keep you guessing or you’ll spot early on so you can brag about how you thought it was very predictable in order to make yourself look big and clever on online comment sections (because that works).

In fairness, the twist — or, at least, key elements of it — are fairly guessable if you’re playing that game. Equally, the film leaves enough doors of possibility open that if you set your heart on one answer (even the right one) then you’re perhaps being a bit blinkered and not indulging in the fun of being strung along by a well-built mystery. And as I always say, most twists are only “predictable” if you predicted the right thing. The mystery certainly kept me engrossed and guessing. I did suspect certain things that turned out to be correct, but there were enough other possibilities floating around that I wasn’t twiddling my thumbs waiting for the reveal.

US MarshalsBesides, the film has other delights beyond being an elaborate guessing game. One of the things Lehane set out to do in his novel was write “a gothic”, and Scorsese and co have taken that ball and run with it. It’s overflowing with a fantastic atmosphere: unsettling, creepy, chilling, horror-movie scary when needed (some sequences are properly hair-raising); truly gothic-feeling. Every aspect of filmmaking — the direction, the photography, the editing, the sets and locations, the music — work in harmony to create a coherent mood.

To single out two, it’s gorgeously shot by Robert Richardson. There are a couple of dream sequences that are a show-off for that kind of thing, but it’s true more widely, the storm-bedevilled island presenting a rewardingly overcast palette. There are instances of what one might call dodgy green screen… but, combined with the continuity-troubled editing, I sense it may’ve been a conscious choice to enhance the disquieting sensation (the editing is certainly deliberate — that some commenters seem to believe Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker could make so many basic errors is bizarre).

The second is the music, put together by Robbie Robertson. Scorsese and Robertson decided against a traditional score, instead choosing to compile fragments of other works (many of them anachronistic) and chop them up in different ways. It’s probably to Robertson’s credit that it doesn’t feel like a jukebox soundtrack; indeed, I assumed it did have a fully composed score, and really rather liked parts of it.

Thoughtful LeoAnd then, after Scorsese and co have done their best to shred your nerves, in the final half-hour the pathos is immense. Quite without realising it had brought me to that point, I had a tear in my eye. This is in part thanks to some great performances, though you do need to reach the twist to fully appreciate them. Everyone reveals more levels once you know it, and indeed it’s clear a great amount of effort went into ensuring re-watchability — that if you view it again knowing the answers, you can spot things; not clues, per se, but elements in the performance, the design, the staging, that tie in to the reveal.

DiCaprio has the showiest performance, though he never goes too far with it — it’s resolutely plausible at all times. Ruffalo may give the best turn of them all, in retrospect — if you watch it a second time (or, for a quick fix, check out the clip-laden making-of documentaries where they discuss the acting), you can really see what he’s doing. Kingsley, too, who without changing his performance is both threatening and kindly.

Incidentally, reviews criticise the brevity of the documentaries on the Blu-ray, but with over half-an-hour of content they could be considerably worse, and they’re quite focused — I learnt a lot from them. No, you’re not getting a scene-by-scene breakdown like you would in an audio commentary, and there’s minimal detail on the usual moviemaking details, but there’s a solid overview of the film’s themes and how they were translated to the screen.

All is not as it seemsI think the more you let Shutter Island percolate after it’s over, the better it becomes. Solving the mystery and guessing at the twists occupies so much of your time on a first viewing that you almost miss the details in the characters and the world, but they build up nonetheless. There’s layers and depth here, and a plausibly realistic depiction (even according to an expert) of something that’s incredibly hard to depict in fiction. You can view Shutter Island as just an atmospheric gothic mystery chiller, and as that it’s a quality piece of work, but it’s the extra depth that mark it out as, actually, a great movie.

5 out of 5

The UK network TV premiere of Shutter Island is on Channel 4 tonight at 9pm.

Shutter Island placed 16th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

2014 #99
Martin Scorsese | 180 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

Oscar statue2014 Academy Awards
5 nominations — 0 wins

Nominated: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay.




The Wolf of Wall StreetWhen someone says “100-million-dollar epic”, you probably don’t imagine a film about a swindling stockbroker; but, with a three-hour running time and a nine-figure budget, that’s exactly what Martin Scorsese’s black comedy biopic is.

Based on a true story, the film sees Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) start out as a stockbroker on Wall Street just before 1987’s Black Monday, which sees the firm he works for close down. Desperate for a job, he finds employment shilling cheap, crap shares to unsuspecting normal folk. Bringing his big-money skills into a grimy little environment, he revolutionises the way business is done, and soon finds himself back on Wall Street, where drug- and drink-fuelled parties, expensive houses, cars and yachts, and dodgy (well, flat-out illegal) business practices are the name of the day.

Some critics and viewers reckon the film is condoning or even glamourising that lifestyle. To which the only sensible response is, really?! How much must those people need their morality spelt out clearly and handed to them on a plate? Scorsese doesn’t out-and-out condemn the behaviour depicted, but nor does he present it as a jolly good time brought low by the cruel machinations of The Man. He’s more of an observer: this is what happened, both what they got away with and what they didn’t; both what was fun and exciting and what went wrong. There’s everything from moments where our own independent morality/irony is clearly meant to be brought to bear on these characters (such as the scene where they’re discussing dwarves) to sequences that outright depict the downside of their behaviour (such as the sequence where Jordan and Donnie take ‘Lemmon’, or indeed a good deal of the movie after that point). The film does not judge these people, but invites us to — Worse for wearand the closing shot clearly shows how many people have already judged them to represent something desirable, regardless of what position the film might take. Some people want this lifestyle, in spite of all the problems it wrought, and even if the film had clearly condemned it that wouldn’t change. In the end, to say Scorsese approves of it purely because he doesn’t lambast it is too simplistic a reading.

Despite the real-life nature of its tale, and the fact the illegal actions surely brought misery to many, the film nonetheless works best as a comedy, which is fortunately its default tone. In the rare moments it shoots for drama, it doesn’t function quite so well — whatever the results of their action, these lives and situations are so outlandish that it’s hard to find an empathetic foothold. The characters may be based on real people, but they don’t live in a world of “real people”; but that’s OK, because I don’t imagine the actual people involved would come over as much more than “characters” if you encountered them in real life.

In this regard, every cast member is excellent. You may most easily identify that quality among the top-billed names (Leo, Jonah Hill, break-out star Margot Robbie), or the masses of recognisable faces in cameo-sized roles (Matthew McConaughey, Jon Favreau, Joanna Lumley, Jean Dujardin…), Ensembledbut almost every supporting character gets a memorable line or scene, a moment where they shine brighter than everyone else; and even when the smaller roles aren’t dominating a scene, they’re part of a first-rate ensemble that functions like a well-oiled machine. My personal favourite was P.J. Byrne’s ‘Rugrat’, but yours may well be someone else.

One criticism I will hold with is that it’s too long. There’s fun packed throughout, but every now and then the pace flags or I found myself checking the clock. I can well imagine that on a re-watch the less-engrossing bits will be thumb-twiddlingly irritating while waiting for the quality memorable material to roll around. A tighter focus, probably at the writing stage but maybe it was salvageable in the edit, might’ve helped this.

And if you’re wondering how it cost $100 million, it’s packed to the rafters with CGI. Some of it is obvious (specifically, when they attempt to sail a yacht through a storm, with disastrous consequences), but there are also tonnes of more subtle digital set/location extensions and changes — check out this video if you want them revealed. Plus they used visual effects to obscure a gay orgy and avoid an NC-17. So that’s nice.

Toast of AmericaAs one of two period comedies about real-life financial crime that contended at the 2014 awards (and neither of which won a single Oscar, as it turned out), The Wolf of Wall Street is the more entertaining victor, for me. However, despite many high-points, some scattered niggles throughout its excessive running time hold back unequivocal praise.

4 out of 5

The Wolf of Wall Street debuts on Sky Movies Premiere today at 9pm, and is already available on demand.

Inception (2010)

2010 #69
Christopher Nolan | 148 mins | cinema | 12A / PG-13

This review ends by calling Inception a “must-see”. I’m telling you this now for two reasons. Primarily, because this review contains major spoilers, and it does seem a little daft to end a review presumably aimed at those who’ve seen the film with a recommendation that they should see it.

Secondly, because Inception — and here’s your first spoiler, sort of — also begins at the end. Now, this is normally a sticking point for me: too many films these days do it, the vast majority have no need to. I’m not convinced Inception needs to either, but it makes a better job of it than most. It does mean that, as the film approaches this moment in linear course, you know it’s coming several minutes ahead of its arrival, but for once that may be half the point.

As you undoubtedly know, Inception is about people who can get into dreams and steal ideas. Now they’re employed to get into a dream and plant an idea. This is either impossible or extremely hard, depending on which character you listen to. And that’s the setup — it’s really not as complicated as some would have you imagine. What follows is, in structural terms, a typical heist movie: Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb is the leader, he puts together a team of specialists, they do the heist, which has complexities and takes up the third act. Where it gets complicated is that this isn’t a casino robbery or betting scam or whatever other clichés have developed in heist movie history, Cobb and Arthurbut the aforementioned implanting of an idea; and so, the film has to explain to us how this whole business works.

The explanation of the rules and the intricacies of the plot occupy almost all of Inception’s not-inconsiderable running time. There’s little in the way of character development, there’s (according to some) little in the way of emotion. But do either of these things matter? Or, rather, why do they have to matter? Why can’t a film provide a ‘cold’ logic puzzle for us to deduce, or be shown the methodology of, if that’s what it wants to do? When I watch an emotional drama I don’t complain that there’s no complex series of mysteries for me to unravel; when I settle down to a lightweight comedy I don’t expect insight into human psychology; musical fans don’t watch everything moaning there aren’t enough songs; you don’t watch a chick flick and wonder when the shooting’s going to start. That is, unless you’re being unreasonable with you expectations.

The film centres on Cobb, it uses Ariadne (Ellen Page) as a method to investigate Cobb, and everyone else plays their role in the heist. And that’s fine. Perhaps Ken Watanabe’s SaitoBath time could do with some more depth, considering his presence in that opening flashforward and his significance to Cobb’s future, but then perhaps he’s the one who most benefits from the mystery. Some would like Michael Caine’s or Pete Postlethwaite’s characters to have more development and, bluntly, screentime; but I think their little-more-than-cameos do a lovely job of wrongfooting you, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Some say the same thing about Lukas Haas’ tiny role, but I don’t know who he is so he may as well be anyone to me. Cast aside, there’s not much humour — well, no one promised you a comedy. At best you could claim it should be a wise-cracking old-school actioner, but it didn’t promise that either.

To complain about these things being missing is, in my view, to prejudge the film; to look at it thinking, “this is potentially the greatest film ever because, well, I would quite like it to be. And so it must have a bit of everything I’ve ever liked in a film”. Which is patently rubbish.

The Team

Taken on its own merits, Inception presents itself as a heist movie, a big puzzle to be solved, with a team leader who has some of his own demons. Now, you can argue that his demons are revealed in chunks of exposition rather than genuine emotion, and that might be a valid criticism that I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with; and you can argue that we’re not shown enough of the planning to fully appreciate the big damn logic puzzle of the heist, instead just seeing it unfold too quickly as they rush deeper and deeper into levels of dream, and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with that either; and you can argue that some of the action sequences could benefit from the narrative clarity Nolan (in both writer and director hats) clearly has about which level’s which and how they impact on each other, and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with that either… but if you’re going to expect the film to offer something it didn’t suggest it was going to… well, tough.

And the film isn’t entirely devoid of character, it’s just light on it. All the performances are fine. DiCaprio is finally beginning to look older than 18 and better able to convince as a man who has lost his family and therefore most of what he cares about. EamesHe wants a way home, he gets a shot at it, and he goes for it. Him aside, it’s a bit hard to call on the performances after one viewing: there’s nothing wrong with any of them, it’s just that they’ve not got a great deal to do — the film is, as noted, more concerned with explaining the world and the heist. How much anyone has put into their part might only become apparent (at least to this reviewer) on repeated viewings. Probably the most memorable, however, is Tom Hardy’s Eames, which is at least in part because he gets the lion’s share of both charm and funny lines.

The plot and technicalities of the world are mostly well explained. Is it dense? Yes. Some have confused this for a lack of clarity but, aside from a few flaws I’ll raise in a minute, everything you need is there. Some, even those who liked it, have criticised it for the bits it definitely does leave out. How exactly can Saito get Cobb home? Whose subconscious are they going into now? What are the full details of the way the machinery they use works? The thing is, it doesn’t matter. None of it does. It would’ve taken Nolan ten seconds to explain some of these things, but does he need to? No. Do you really care? OK, well — Saito is best chums with the US Attorney General, so he asks nicely and Cobb’s off the hook. Sorted. It’s not in the film because it doesn’t need to be; it’s not actually relevant to the story, or the themes, or the characters, or anything else. Nighty nightApparently this distracts some people. Well, I can’t tell them it’s fine if it’s going to keep distracting them, but…

It’s fine. Because Nolan only skips over information we don’t need to know — precisely because we don’t need it. Should it matter whose mind we’re in? Maybe it should. But it would seem it doesn’t, because it’s all constructed by Ariadne and populated by the target anyway, and apparently anyone’s thoughts can interfere — they never go into Cobb’s mind, but Mal is always cropping up, not to mention that freight train — so why do we care whose brain they’re in? It seems little more than a technicality. And as for how the system works… well, we’re given hints at how it developed, and the rules and other variables are explained (for example, how mixing different chemicals affects the level of sleep and, as it turns out, whether you get to wake up), but — again — we’re told everything we need to know and no more. Because you don’t need anything else. It’s all covered. And if it’s as complicated as so many are saying, why are you begging for unnecessary detail?

And I have more issues with other reviews, actually. I think the desire for more outlandish dreams is misplaced. It’s clearly explained that the dreamer can’t be allowed to know he’s dreaming, so surely if they were in some trippy psychedelic dreamscape — which would hardly be original either, to boot — they’d probably catch on this wasn’t Reality. AriadneOn the flip side, this rule could be easily worked around — “in dreams, we just accept everything that happens as possible, even when it obviously isn’t” — but where’s the dramatic tension in that? There’s tension in them needing to be convinced it’s real; if anything goes… well, anything goes, nothing would be of consequence, the only story would be them completing a danger-free walk-in-the-park mission.

Much has also been made in reviews of the skill displayed by editor Lee Smith in cutting back & forth between the multiple dream levels, a supposedly incredibly hard job. And it is well done, make no mistake — but it also sounds harder than it is. Really, it’s little different than keeping track of characters in three or four different locations simultaneously; it’s just that these locations are levels of dream/consciousness rather than worldly space. Still no mean feat, but not as hard as keeping three different time periods/narrators distinct and clear, as Nolan & co did in The Prestige.

This isn't in the film...

Then there’s the final shot, which has initiated mass debating in some corners of the internet (yes, that dire pun is fully intentional). In my estimation, and despite some people’s claims to definitiveness, it proves nothing. Some have taken it as undoubted confirmation that Cobb is dreaming all along — the top keeps spinning! Mal said it never stops in a dream! — but I swear we saw it stop earlier in the film, so was that not a dream but now he is in one? How would that work? Others have suggested Cobb is in fact the victim of an inception; that we’ve watched a con movie where we never saw the team, and couldn’t work out who they were. Perhaps; but for this to work surely it’s dependent on a way that we can work out who they were, and what their plan was, and how they did it? Otherwise we may as well start picking on every movie and sayCobb considers the ending “ah, but characters X, Y and Z are actually a secret team doing a secret thing, but we never know what the secret thing is, or what the result of that is”. In other words, it’s pointless unless it’s decipherable.

And still further, the top doesn’t stop spinning on screen. But you can make those things spin for a damn long time before they fall over, if you do it right, so who can say it’s just not done yet? If it does fall over, eventually, sometime after the credits end, then that’s that, it’s the real world after all. Presumably. And that’s without starting on all the other evidence throughout the film: repeated phrases, unclear jumps in location, the first scene that may or may not be different the second time we see it…

Something’s going on, but is it just thematic, or is it all meant to hint that Cobb’s in a dream? And if he is, who (if anyone) is controlling it? To what end? I’m certain that those answers, at least, aren’t to be found, so, again, are the questions valid? My view — on the final shot, at least — is, perhaps too pragmatically, that it’s just a parting shot from Nolan: it doesn’t reveal the Secret Truth of the whole film, it just suggests that maybe — maybe — there’s even more going on. Maybe. And I’m not sure he even knows what that would be or if there is; Debatebeyond that the top still spinning as the credits roll is an obvious, irresistible tease. He wouldn’t be the first filmmaker to do such a thing Just Because.

Or there’s always the ‘third version’: that the top doesn’t stop not because it doesn’t stop but because the film ends. Ooh, film-school-tastic. Also, stating the bleeding obvious. I believe it was suggested as a bona fide explanation by one of Lost’s producers, and so is surely automatically classifiable in the “tosh” bin along with that TV series. Presumably it’s ‘deep thoughts’ like that which led to an ending that left many fans unsatisfied. But I digress. He’s right in the sense that the film doesn’t tell us, but it’s not an explanation of it in and of itself unless you want to be insufferably pretentious: it is ambiguous, yes, but it’s not a comment on the artificiality of storytelling or whatever. And if it is… well, I’ll choose to ignore that, thanks, because, no.

Bored now

I alluded earlier to flaws. If anything, the final act heist is too quick. With, ultimately, four layers of dreams to progress through, not enough time is devoted to establishing and utilising each one. It’s as if Nolan set up a neat idea then realised he couldn’t fully exploit it. They have a week in one world, months in the next, years in the next… but it doesn’t matter, because events come into play that give them increasingly less time at each level. Would it not have been more interesting to craft a heist that actually used the years of dreamtime at their disposal, rather than a fast-edited & scored extended Cobb and Ariadne at the climax. Oo-er.action sequence across all four levels? It makes for an exciting finale when they need to get out, true, but I couldn’t help feeling it didn’t exploit one of the more memorable and significant elements enough.

Indeed, at times the film operates with such efficiency that one can’t help but wonder if there’s another half-hour cut out that it would be quite nice to have back. I appreciate some have criticised the film for already being too long; it would seem I quite decidedly disagree. And not in the fannish “oh I just want more” way that really means they should just get hold of a copy and watch it on loop; I literally mean it could be around half an hour longer and, assuming that half-hour was filling the bits I felt could handle some filling (i.e. not the omitted bits I was fine with nine paragraphs back), I would be more than happy with that. I did not get bored once.

Still on the flaws: Mal (that’d be Cobb’s wife — I’ve been assuming you knew this, sorry if I shouldn’t have) is talked up as a great, interfering, troublesome force… Cobb and Malyet she’s rarely that much of a bother. At the start, sure, so we know that she is; and then in Cobb’s own mind when Ariadne pops in for a visit, but that’s why he’s there so it goes without saying; and then, really, it’s not ’til she puts in a brief appearance to execute Fischer that we see her again (unless I’m forgetting a moment?) And apparently Ariadne has had some great realisation that Mal’s affecting Cobb’s work, and Ariadne’s the only one who knows this… but hold on, didn’t Arthur seem all too aware of how often Mal had been cropping up? Does he promptly forget this after she shoots him? Mal is a potentially interesting villainess, especially as she’s actually a construct of Cobb’s subconscious, but I’m not convinced her part is fully developed in the middle.

On a different note, some of the visuals are truly spectacular. I don’t hold to the notion, expressed by some disappointed reviewers, that we’ve seen it all before. The Matrix may have offered broadly similar basic concepts in places, but Inception provides enough work of its own for that not to matter. But there is another problem: we have seen it all before. In the trailer. It’s a little like (oddly) Wanted. That comic book adaptation promised amazing, outrageous, impossible stunts through an array showcased in the trailer. “Wow,” thought (some) viewers, “if that’s what’s in the trailer, imagine what they’ve saved for the film!” Turned out, nothing. And Inception is pretty much the same. The exploding Parisian street, the folding city, the Zero-G corridorzero-G corridor, the crumbling cliff-faces… all look great, but there’s barely any astounding visual that wasn’t shown in full in the trailer. Is that a problem? Only fleetingly.

But it’s the kind of thing that makes me think Inception will work better on a second viewing. Not for the sake of understanding, but to remove it from the hype and expectation. I’ve seen it now, I know what it is, I’ve seen what it has to offer, I’ve had the glowing reviews and the lambasting reviews either affirmed or rejected, and next time I can actually get a handle on what the film is like. Which makes for an anti-climactic ending to a review, really — “ah, I’ll tell you next time”. Well, I can say this:

Inception is certainly worth watching. I’m not sure it’s a masterpiece — maybe it is — but I’m certain it’s not bad. I don’t think it’s as complicated to follow as some believe, but maybe that’s just because I was prepared to pay attention, and equally prepared to disregard the bits that aren’t necessary rather than struggle to fully comprehend every minute detail. It is flawed, though perhaps some of those I picked up on can be explained (in the way I’m certain some others I’ve discussed can be explained). The very first kickIs it cold and unemotional? Not entirely. Is it more concerned with the technicalities of the heist and the rules of the game than its characters and their emotions? Yes. Is that a problem? Not really.

At the very least, if only for all the reaction it’s provoked and the debate it will continue to foster, Inception qualifies as a must-see.

5 out of 5

Inception placed 3rd on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2010, which can be read in full here.

forever spinning

The Man in the Iron Mask (1998)

2009 #30
Randall Wallace | 132 mins | download | 12 / PG-13

The Man in the Iron MaskFrom the off it’s clear that The Man in the Iron Mask is not going to go well. It’s an adaptation of a tale of the Three Musketeers, so naturally is set in historical Paris… where everyone has a different accent and very few of them are French. It is, to be blunt, a horrid mishmash — much like the whole film.

Wordy political intrigue tries to coexist with broad comedy which is squashed against swashbuckling adventure. The latter two could co-exist, but the film feels like it wants to be the former and so suffers for it. The comedy jars too much to be effective, while instances of unintentional comedy unfortunately provoke more frequent laughs. It should at least be able to swash buckles effectively — these are the Three Musketeers after all — but entirely fails to achieve this until the climax. The plot, semi-faithfully adapted from one of Alexandre Dumas’ original novels, offers a level of complexity to which the film clearly aspires, but the adaptation and acting struggle to match it.

The majority of performances are marred by overacting — John Malkovich, especially, is woefully miscast, while Leonardo DiCaprio doesn’t appear to give a particularly good performance as either Louis or Philippe. In DiCaprio’s defence I suspect this is actually the script’s fault, because he manages to clearly differentiate the two when they are silent or pretending to be the other — it’s when they open their mouths that it all goes wrong. Gérard Depardieu is fine as the comic relief, though that relief is tonally misplaced, while Gabriel Byrne makes an interesting d’Artagnan — there’s nothing at all wrong with him, and yet he doesn’t feel quite right. Which leaves just Jeremy Irons among the main cast. He fares the best of the lot, even getting the occasional scene or speech that is genuinely quite good, though it’s clear he is far better than the material. To be fair, the same is also true of everyone else.

For all this, The Man in the Iron Mask is more disappointing then bad. The Bastille-set climax is occasionally brilliant and never less than entertaining, delivering on the film’s swashbuckling promise in a copious fashion. Throughout, there’s the occasional good scene — or even just a decent line of dialogue — and you can briefly understand what inspired such quality actors to sign on.

Something went wrong somewhere though, and the obvious culprit must be writer/director Randall Wallace. The story’s good, but that’s Dumas’, while the adaptation’s weak — and that’s Wallace’s. The actor’s are good, but battle the poor script — and that, obviously, is Wallace’s. They don’t seem to have been given any significant direction, they’re not helped by an uneven tone, and even the cinematography falls short, failing to make the spectacular locations and costumes look suitably beautiful on screen — and we know who’s ultimately in charge of all that too.

The Man in the Iron Mask desperately wants to be better than it is — it’s a great tale, packed with politics and swashbuckling, and this particular version has the high calibre cast to pull it off. But both are left floundering by a writer/director who isn’t up to either task — poor dialogue, a gyratingly uneven tone and lacklustre direction abound. A missed opportunity, and all the more disappointing for it.

2 out of 5