Thursday, 29 August 2019

Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood

Regular readers may have noticed that I haven’t written a review since March. In fact, I’ve written only a handful of reviews since last October. There are many reasons for this, but the primary one is that we moved across the country to join Walter and Carol in St. Stephen, New Brunswick. All moves are stressful and time-consuming, but this one took every moment I could spare for a five-month period. It didn’t help that 2019 has, so far, not offered me a single film that is likely to make my top ten films of the year (note: many great films may have been made this year, but I have not had access to them).

But, for now, I’m back, with the latest film by Quentin Tarantino (which also won’t make my top ten). You may recall that while I have appreciated almost all of Tarantino’s films, not one has found its way into my top 300 films of all time, thanks in large part to Tarantino’s penchant for graphic violence. In this regard, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood may be Tarantino’s most infuriating film yet.

Essentially a comedy-drama buddy film, the last half hour of Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood becomes a graphic violence horror fest that leaves viewers like me shaking their heads and asking: WHY? Why was it necessary to suck the joy out of what was an engaging beautifully-acted story about two middle-aged men coming to terms with the decline in their careers, by ending the film with a completely unnecessary blood-bath? Tarantino precedes the blood-bath by having his young would-be killers talk about the consequences of watching too much violence when they were kids (concluding that there are decidedly negative consequences to exposing children to a daily dose of violence on TV). If exposing people to too much violence (especially redemptive violence) is problematic, then why does Tarantino do it? Or is the violence in his films supposed to be so gruesome that viewers will be repelled by it and see how awful redemptive violence can be? Doesn’t feel like that to me.

As the title suggests, the film is set in Hollywood. It’s 1969. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Jack Dalton, an actor who has played the lead role in a major TV western and a number of films. Now he’s been asked to play the baddie and he realizes that his best days may be behind him. Jack lives alone in a mansion in Beverly Hills, where he drowns his sorrows in alcohol while trying to memorize his lines. Living next door are Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski, whom Dalton idolizes (more on that story in a moment). What keeps Jack going is his relationship with his former stunt man, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Cliff is a man with problems of his own, having been relegated from being a stunt man to being Jack’s driver and gopher. Cliff lives in a small trailer with his large dog, Brandy (one of the film’s best actors).

Cliff is a dark figure with a questionable past. While his story has its magic moments (like most of his visit to the isolated ranch where the Manson ‘family’ is living), it is not as engaging or rewarding as Jack’s story, which is full of magic moments (though not those involving Al Pacino, whom I did not appreciate in this film), especially those involving a precocious eight-year-old girl (played by Julia Butters), with whom Jack shares an important acting scene, and James Stacy (Timothy Olyphant), who plays the lead in Jack’s latest film. 

The Sharon Tate story, which has few connections to the stories of Jack and Cliff, also has some magic moments. Indeed, there are so many magic moments in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood (and in many of Tarantino’s films) that it should have been an easy four-star classic. But then comes the ending. Those of us who remember what happened to Sharon Tate expect some form of violence, but what happens just wasn’t necessary. Indeed, in the hands of another filmmaker, this otherwise imaginative story may have had a wonderful ending. Sigh.

The acting was mostly Oscar-worthy (DiCaprio and Robbie were exceptional and Pitt had his moments). Bruce Dern has a notable cameo. The cinematography and music were great, the dialogue was (as usual for Tarantino) terrific and there is little to fault in Tarantino’s direction. So Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood gets a solid ***+. My mug is up, but there’s a bitter taste to the stuff inside that makes it much less than what it could be.

Thursday, 9 May 2019

Summer in the Forest

How do you make a documentary about Jean Vanier? How do you honour the greatness of someone who made a life out of honouring weakness, the forgotten?

A few months ago, a group of us gathered at the house of friends and watched this quiet documentary. It begins quietly and slowly, inviting you into the intimate life of the core members of a L'Arche residence in Trosly-Breuil, north of Paris. You begin to feel the warmth, the contented imperfection. Though you catch glimpses of Vanier doing the ordinary magic that made this all possible - caring for the minutiae of life for his friends with a patience and persistence that makes the insignificant matter - you soon learn the film is about Jean Vanier by not being about Jean Vanier. It honours him in the only way that makes sense, by helping you to fall in love with the people that he has given his life to loving.

Part-way through I found myself feeling a distance from what I was seeing. That ordinary magic I just mentioned felt impossible. How could I slow down enough to get lost in those kinds of conversations? How could I shut off the pressure to make time count? To get things done? How would Vanier's life not be overrun with boredom?

But then the magic somehow starts to work on me. By the end of the film, it feels possible. It feels like I've almost entered the skin of Jean Vanier, and I care about each of the true stars of the film as they go about their daily lives - seeing them through his eyes. Each one's life is rich and important - beautiful.

The world mourns the loss of Jean Vanier this week. If you're looking for a way to give attention to his legacy, I recommend this simple and beautiful film.

Thursday, 28 March 2019

Captain Marvel

Despite not being a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) (I have no intention of watching Endgame and have missed most of the recent Avengers films), I watched Captain Marvel just a few days after its release so I could review it for Third Way:

I confess I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Captain Marvel, not least because of Brie Larson's performance and the story involving the Scrull and a missing artifact, as well as the scenes involving a retired young air force pilot (Maria). But the film is flawed in various ways (as are the rest of the MCU films), so Captain Marvel gets only somewhere between *** and ***+. My mug is up.

See my Third Way review for details.

Wednesday, 27 March 2019


I have written very few reviews in the past five months. Partly that’s because I am in the process of moving to another province (which is a tremendous amount of work) and partly that’s because very few films released in the past five months were worth watching. When Jordan Peele’s new film came out with rave reviews that compared Us favourably with Get Out, saying it was funny, intelligent, profound and socially relevant, I decided to give it a look, despite my lack of interest in horror films.

Big mistake. I did not think Us was funny, scary, intelligent, profound or socially relevant (not that it didn’t try), and I predicted all of the surprise twists in the first ten minutes. This film was a complete waste of my time and the only thing good about it was the performance of Lupita Nyong’o. Incredibly disappointed in the film and in the critics who praised it. I will not waste any more of my time by writing more. My mug is down. 

Tuesday, 22 January 2019

Walter's Top Ten for 2018

So, having once again missed the deadline of beating the Oscar nominations (because of rushing to get a few last films in), I now offer my top ten for the year. I remind readers that this list refers to their value to me and are not meant to highlight the best crafted films of the year.

I suspect that I have seen fewer films this year than any of the last ten - a fact not unrelated to the number of reviews that I posted in 2018 (0). Clearly my life is too busy with less important matters. So, many good candidates remain unwatched including: Can you ever forgive me?,The Silent Revolution, A Private War, Boy Erased, and Capernaum.

Nevertheless, I still found enough to have a list that I feel ok about, as well as the usual honourable mentions and disappointments.The honourable mentions are Leave No Trace, Indian Horse, First Reformed and the Guernsey Literary etc. That's a wide diversity of fine films that didn't quite make the list.

Before the top ten, here is my "spilled coffee list" (having totally blown the chance to warrant the salute of a raised mug of coffee). First of all: Sicario: Day of the Soldado - this was the one I expected to disappoint, and it did. Such a step down from the first. Then Crazy, Rich Asians. Really? Critics: what the heck? How did this warrant any more attention than the average rom-com? So ordinary. And the disgusting display of outrageous wealth without the slightest awareness that this is problematic. Sigh. Finally, Annihilation. Yes, my hopes shouldn't have been raised when this is not my genre. But it was sci-fi horror with nothing extra to make it worthwhile (Sorry, Vic, I just don't see it).

Here's the top ten:

(10) Roma & Cold War - OK, here's the thing. These are two very well made films, but neither fulfilled my hopes. The b & w cinematography is gorgeous in each (I significantly preferred Cold War on a purely aesthetic basis.) They both succeeded in creating an amazing sense of mood that felt exotic and powerful. In spite of the excitement about Roma, I thought I was going to like Cold War better because it was so beautifully done, and I sensed it had a stronger narrative. It may have, but the narrative was pathetic. Vic referred to it as a passionate love story, but I would prefer "pathological" love story. Roma just didn't give enough story period, and though it had the potential to "mean" something anyway, I didn't find it succeeded in a meaning that I cared about. If I felt it succeeded in telling Cleo's story, I would have put it high on my list (because several scenes were truly amazing). But it didn't succeed. It felt like Cuarón's imaginings and glorifications from the boy's perspective, which didn't quite honour the real Cleo. So I'll just leave both these films parked here at the tail of my list.

9. Juliet, Naked – The best rom-com of the year (though that’s not a perfect description or genre). It’s a clever film well worth a light evening of entertainment.

8. The Insult – Strikingly less light - this story, as good films often do, deepens the complexity around a common conflict, taking us through many layers and a variety of emotions toward each "side." It asks good questions about the use of emotional manipulation. (2017 film but not released in Canada until 2018)

7. Puzzle – The acting makes this interesting little film work. A repressed housewife discovers her superpower and it slowly draws her into a larger world in which she has more of a voice. 

6. The Children Act – Few could have made this such a great film as Emma Thompson does. She makes us feel her world and her dilemma, even as she struggles with feeling anything. It’s a window into how professional wisdom and personal brokenness get credibly tangled up. 

5. Isle of Dogs – I haven’t always been a fan of Wes Anderson, though increasingly his films have been catching the outskirts of my attention. This is one of the best. More than ever, there seemed to be a point to it (the lack of which has been a problem for me in many of his other films). It felt like a finally "got" some of the things that he was up to creatively.

4. The Guilty – Reminding me of a favourite from a few years back (Locke), this Danish thriller is another great example of how you can tell a deeply engaging story from a very constrained perspective; this one takes place entirely within an office receiving emergency calls. The way the ending is handled (as Vic already noted) takes it from good to great. 

3. Tully – A creative film that succeeded in its unique approach. See it without asking too many questions. There was more clever writing to lighten things up than I expected and lots of beautiful and inspiring reality about care and self-care.

2. The Rider – This is a film that I enjoyed on viewing, but my appreciation grew even more as I thought about it. Reading about how the film came to be deepened that even more. The Rider centres on an Indigenous family and deals well with that reality without drawing any unnecessary attention to it. It celebrates human diversity in a context where you don’t expect it. Some scenes were amazing.

1. Green Book – Take two interesting characters that make an odd couple, based on a true story. Throw in a lot of good piano music, some great laughs and a few surprises. Add some social and historical insights that you see from a new perspective. And you've got a great movie that underlines how deeply important it is for us to build relationships across divides.

Thoughts on the Academy Award Nominations for 2018

The Academy has listed its nominations for 2018 and overall I am more than a little disappointed. Here are my thoughts, in brief:
  1. I have stated my opinion that Roma is perhaps the best film of the century, so I was pleasantly surprised to see how many nominations (10) that it received. I consider it a crime (i.e. an offence against the history of the film industry) that I had to watch Roma on Netflix.
  2. Only two of my top fifteen films received Best Picture nominations, which is quite disappointing, especially when I believe half of the films nominated don’t deserve to be on the list.
  3. Two of the best films of 2018 (You Were Never Really Here, Leave No Trace) were made by women. These films are nowhere to be found among the nominations. Very sad.
  4. Related to the above, my favourite performance of 2018 was by Joaquin Phoenix in You Were Never Really Here. Not even nominated.
  5. I understand why critics think The Favourite is a brilliant film, but Lanthimos is beginning to scare me a little and I think his film is overrated, so the 10 nominations are a lot.
Using the Academy’s nomination list, here are my votes in eleven key categories:

Best Picture: Roma
Best Director: Alfonso Cuarón, Roma
Best Actor: Viggo Mortensen, Green Book (haven’t seen At Eternity’s Gate)
Best Actress: Glenn Close, The Wife
Best Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali, Green Book
Best Supporting Actress: Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk
Best Adapted Screenplay: If Beale Street Could Talk
Best Original Screenplay: First Reformed
Best Foreign Language Film: Roma
Best Cinematography: Roma
Best Original Score: If Beale Street Could Talk

Friday, 11 January 2019

If Beale Street Could Talk

It's been a great year for films about the black-American experience and this is the best of them. My review can be found at Third Way:

If Beale Street Could Talk gets ****. My mug is up.