Mary Queen of Scots

mary1This is one of those films that fails to be the sum of its parts. It has a high-pedigree cast, that includes Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Guy Pearce, with David Tennant in scenery-chewing mode- and what fine scenery that is, with some gorgeous sets and lovely wide location shoots, some really fine art direction and hauntingly atmospheric music from Max Richter. It should really be something powerful, stirring, something akin to Roland Joffe’s The Mission, perhaps.

But it doesn’t really ignite,  doesn’t really seize the emotive heights it should.  Instead it seems to get bogged down by the minutiae of 16th Century court politics and in the end seems to just reaffirm that ages-old riff that all men are bastards, and that the world would be a better place were we led by women who did’t have to be distracted at playing men’s games in a mans world.

mary2Or perhaps that was the whole point of the film after all, and I’m being unfair to it expecting more. Robbie’s Elizabeth I is rather ill-served in my opinion, almost rendered impotent, which is a curious spin considering some of the films made about her in the past (such as the 1998 film Elizabeth starring Cate Blanchett, which seemed to portray an entirely different woman altogether). This film seems rather uncertain whether she and Mary are opponents or allies sharing similar problems (i.e. the men surrounding them), kindred spirits divided by the physical borders that define them. I rather suspect that history is being reshaped to reflect modern sensibilities, modern concerns- there is sex in the film, and homosexuality, and alcoholism, and a character in Mary’s court who is suspiciously transgender. Its curious also that perhaps the most interesting moment in the film, arguably its actual climax, is a meeting between the two women which never really happened.

There is plenty to admire in the film- it does indeed look ravishing and the two leads are very good (albeit Robbie rather ill-served), and the music score fits the film as well as I suspected it would having listened to the soundtrack CD some months ago. So its well worth a watch and rewards the attention its sluggish, rather dense script demands, but it never feels to match what it might have, and should have been. Not exactly a misfire, put possibly a missed opportunity.

 

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

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The mutt steals the picture. Sure, Brad may be the coolest actor on the planet, the sense of calm, old-school cool that he just exudes in this film is just a wonder to behold, frankly, how effortless it seems to be… (and how that compares with the more introverted lead in Ad Astra) and Leo again shows how he can still surprise as he gets older…  but those guys can’t stop pit bull Sayuri (who plays Brandy, Brad’s pet dog in the film) from stealing the film from them. They should have put her name above the credits, it would have been an in-joke worthy of the director.

Somehow I managed to avoid any spoilers for this film- other than knowing that it was set in Hollywood and involved the murder of actress Sharon Tate, I knew nothing. Turned out I knew less than I thought. This really wasn’t the film I’d expected it to be. Is it even a film? With all due respect to Mr Tarantino, I feel the need to describe this as more as an experience than a film. For much of its running time hardly anything, dramatically at least, seems to be happening- certainly anything like a plot or the traditional three-act structure films usually have seems to be missing. And yet I can’t say I noticed, except about just over an hour in when I glanced at the digital counter on the dash of my Blu-ray player and wondered when something was going to happen. Turned out I had to wait for another hour for that.

I’m exaggerating of course. Or am I? Not that I minded, because I found it all pretty enthralling nonetheless. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is an incredibly evocative film, creating an amazingly convincing sense of time and place through a combination of superb art direction, cinematography and sound design (typically of Tarantino, it boasts a wonderful soundtrack of songs). Its so atmospheric that I can’t help but allude to Blade Runner, and how over the years part of the pleasure of watching that film was just being immersed in this incredibly convincing future world- in the case of this film, its a sense of being thrown back to 1969 and its long-lost Hollywood. I’m pretty certain that I’ll re-watch Once Upon a Time in Hollywood not for the jokes or the (sparse but powerful) action, or even the great performances, but rather just to soak it all up again, wallow in that sense of a time and place. Its an escape, just as it was when visiting the LA of 2019 envisioned by Ridley all those years ago. LA 2019, and LA 1969- the more things stay the same.

once1It may, of course, alienate those in the audience who prefer, say, Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, the high-octane, in-your-face, twist-and-turns and shocks and surprises that his past films are so famous for. This slow, rather sad and reflective film is unmistakably Tarantino- there’s still plenty of the ornate dialogue and self-knowing humour, but it all seems balanced by some new, maturer perspective. Its more a film about movie myths, the power of them, the nostalgia of pop-culture and how fragile fame and fortune can be. The relentless march of time and change and sensing your best years are behind you.

It turns out that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a Golden Age fairy tale, leaving the real world behind as it turns towards its finale. It leaves us finally revealed to be less a film, more some strange otherworldly dream, tricking us through the power of nostalgia and what we have grown to expect from a Tarantino picture. Its quite a sleight of hand by Tarantino, and really quite magical. I was really quite enthralled by the whole thing. I’m not sure it was actually a proper film, at least in the conventional sense. More a love letter for movie lovers and fans of the old television Western era then, and none the worse for that.

The Legend of Tarzan (2016)

legtarazanCaught this on Netflix last night. At least it didn’t cost me anything (Netflix subscription notwithstanding, at least it wasn’t a rental or disc purchase). What a woeful, ill-judged film this was. Ignoring the shambolic script, the actual presentation, with sweeping circular camera moves that always irritate me and excessive use of painterly (unconvincing) CGI landscapes and characters, was really pretty poor. As for that script… well, let’s be fair, it’s hardly a finished script- it feels like a rough draft and it may be a fault of the editing that it seems so bad, or maybe the editing looks bad because it’s trying to fix the script problems in post.

The Legend of Tarzan seems to want it both ways- retelling and retooling the familiar origin story in awkward flashbacks whilst setting itself ten years after Tarzan has returned to England as Lord Greystoke, thus enabling a sort of post-modern revisionism of the story/legend in much the same way as Spielberg tried (and failed) with Peter Pan in his movie Hook. Unfortunately, it makes the film feel as much Marvel as it does Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Its hard to measure the cynicism of the piece, from the casting of Samuel L.Jackson to give the film the uncomfortable feel of a buddy picture while making it also ‘hip’ and trendy,  to the awful waste of Christoph Waltz as the utterly one-dimensional chief bad guy and nemesis for Tarzan. As for Tarzan himself, Alexander Skarsgård acquits himself pretty well but is hamstrung with the stodgy script that fails to serve the character at all. There were a few times that I thought that the guy was a pretty good Tarzan but wasted in the wrong movie- I felt quite embarrassed for him.

legtarazan2The film seems too concious about retooling Tarzan for a modern audience more accustomed to the heroics of Marvel and DC superheroes than the heroics of old, with Tarzan’s swinging through the jungle CGI-hysterics looking too much like Spiderman swinging through the canyons of New York, and some of the one-on-one fighting looking pretty much like any other modern costumed caper. I’m left with the suspicion that the whole project is really a case of it being made simply to be ‘Tarzan for the CGI generation’ as if the film-making techniques (such as the rendering of CGi apes and other animals etc) of today are the sole reason to retell Tarzan’s adventures.

When the film finally closes and the credits start to the accompaniment of a pretty awful ‘pop’ song, the ugly cynicism is complete: this is a film that is all about product, and franchise, and making money. Maybe I’m being naive, I guess all films are about making money, but somehow the film-makers managed to sink $180 million into this – and it looks like all of $80 million managed to get onscreen, an indication of waste perhaps reinforced by the bewildering number of producers credited. Its so terribly knowing and cynical, it doesn’t seem to be anything about a decent story being told as efficiently as possible but rather the usual noise and spectacle that is inevitably ill-judged. By becoming calculatedly epic (the grand finale is a horror of all the usual bad CGI habits, with thousands of digital thespians and dodgy cartoon landscapes serving no good at all) and ignoring the intimate (the chemistry between Tarzan and Jane (a free-spirited Margot Robbie that perhaps feels a little too Lara Croft) never really convinces, despite, or perhaps because of, Skarsgård sulkily mooning over her all the time. When Jane is captured by the dastardly Christoph Waltz and Tarzan stoutly chases after her, it’s all very Last of the Mohicans but without the passion or tension. The predictable ending is inevitable.

 

Bring On The Bad Guys

suicid22017.2: Suicide Squad- Extended Cut (Blu-ray)

Hey, Suicide Squad ain’t so bad. Well, the movie is pretty poor, but the squad, well, they ain’t so bad. One of them even refuses to use his powers for fear of hurting anyone. Another is, yes, a killer but she just fell for the wrong guy (shucks, the Joker, whodathunkit) and she’s crazy anyway, so she doesn’t know what she’s doing, she just looks great doing it. Another one is an assassin who is more interested in getting his daughter through college, like any good parent should.

Were these the baddest bad guys DC could come up with? An Aussie bankrobber who throws a boomerang and keeps a pink fluffy unicorn under his coat? What?

Handicapped with a crew of b-list bad guys like that, its no wonder the film comes off feeling rather anaemic. These bad guys are more poor-mans superheroes than kickass supervillains. Even the Big Baddess that threatens to destroy the world in some weird Ghostbusters-knockoff is a good-looking white chick possessed by some evil voodoo priestess, who needs saving rather than killing (her brother who’s possessing some random Black Guy needs killing though, that’s fine, who’s gonna miss a black guy?).

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Who the fuck pissed off my stylist?

In all fairness to the film-makers, maybe they really did intend to make the superhero-genre equivalent of Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds. There’s just no way Warners or DC would let them go that far. Superhero films are so expensive, with entire franchises of multitudes of films riding on each and every one of them, that there is no way anyone is going to take any risks subverting genre conventions or upsetting anyone. Even Deadpool, for all its bad-language and violence and under-the-belt humor, is fairly conservative in its structure in the end.

I do suspect that Zack Snyder when he began working on the DC films, from Man of Steel and Batman v Superman to Justice League, and co-producing Suicide Squad, possibly always intended to inform them from a post-Watchmen angle, analysing and subverting genre norms under the watchful eye of a modern contemporary worldview. But each film appears to have been neutered by a nervous studio envious of how Marvel Studios are cleaning up at the Box Office. So they seem to be being made with the best of intentions regards showing a dark and gritty world of heroes but they always seem to falter, never more so than here with Suicide Squad.

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No boys, there aint nothing phallic about my baseball bat…

That said, I did quite enjoy it; its like there was a great film in here once but it got lost in the process of making it. Ben Affleck’s Batman really needs his own movie- Affleck looks fantastic as the Dark Knight. Jared Leto’s Joker needs a film where he’s the central villain so he can get on with being really bad and crazy. Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn has passed her audition with flying colours and is sure to get her own spin-off film to keep the pubescent boys interested in DC movies (what’s the odds she gets cameos in several films?). Viola Davis’ Amanda Waller is perhaps the only genuine bad guy in the whole picture, almost out-doing Samuel Jackson as the best badass leader around.

But as a whole, Suicide Squad is something of a shambles. If anything, it repeats the mistakes of BvS. It has to spend so much time establishing characters and motivations that it leaves little space for the actual plot, in just the same way that BvS spends far too much time setting up Justice League.

Suicide Squad needed to follow a Batman film with the Dark Knight battling the Joker and Harley Quinn, so that we knew all that background from the start. Suicide Squad needed a film with Deadshot being an evil deadly assassin so that his shot (sic) for redemption (and his daughter) actually meant something to us. Imagine if that first Avengers film had to introduce every member of the Avengers, who they were, their origins/histories, before it could get on with battling Loki and the alien invasion. It would have seemed a horrible clunky mess, like all these DC films seem to.

Oh well. There’s always Wonder Woman to save the day, DC…

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