Once upon a time in Hollywood review

A Tinseltown fairytale

Full disclosure: I have a thing for Los Angeles. I tell people it’s because my first memories are there. Dad moved us there in 1979 when he went to work for Capitol records. So, the sunlight, the smell, the feel of the city always moves me way more than I can reasonably explain. Just thought I’d put that out there before I review ‘Once upon an time in Hollywood’ – Quentin Tarantino’s love song to Tinseltown. 

Now, I’m not a Tarantino fan boy. In fact, I find many of his films self indulgent, too long, striving for coolness at the expense of story, overly reliant on the fame of his stars, rather than the portrayal of character. But, without question, ‘Once upon a time’ has become my favorite Tarantino movie. Why? 

 A Hollywood tale

The story in short: we simply follow TV star, turned B movie actor, Rick Dalton (Leonardo di Caprio) and his stunt double/gopher Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) through six months of their Hollywood adventures. Woven through their attempts to revive Rick’s career and be good guys, we follow Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) enjoying life in LA. Her historical gruesome murder is a constant threatening dark cloud hanging over the seemingly lightweight story. And we are often reminded of this impending doom by appearances of the Manson family. The story slowly but surely builds to a tense and shocking climax – which I won’t spoil.

 Slow burn

The movie starts off gently, with plenty of laughs, provided for example by Al Pacino in the guise of agent Marvin Schwarz. The two main stars play off each other extremely well, and they make great company. 1969 Los Angeles is rendered in all its glory, with quintessential Tarantino flourish. It definitely took me back to the ‘good old days’. Margot Robbie is terrific as Sharon Tate. The dialogues are typically fun and snappy. But as the newness wears off, the movie settles into a slow, dare I say it, at times quite boring flow. I found myself wondering: “What am I looking at and why?” – Rick’s attempt to keep his career alive just seems too little story to carry the movie. Added to this is the fact that the story is headed in the direction of a terrible crime – which made me quite uneasy. Knowing Tarantino’s insensitivity to historic tragedies, such as the ‘funny’ jew hunting scene in Inglourious Basterds and the shocking inappropriateness of Django Unchained, I was preparing myself for a very awkward finale. To be honest, I was preparing to walk out. 

 Grande finale

But, without spoiling the entire movie I will just say that it is precisely that finale that justifies the entire movie. Every long minute, every detour and dead end is brought to perfect completion in the final ten minutes or so. The slow pace of proceedings, the plotlessness of it all, the random silliness: everything clicks. The clue is in the title: it’s a fairytale. In the land of tinsel and dreams, this is how a lover of film and romance of cinema would have his do-over – it’s a bitter sweet fantasy. And quite personal. Suddenly the plot clicks too: Rick’s ambition is mirrored in the fantasy of the movie at large: to keep the dream alive a bit longer, to make 1969 just another year in LA, rather than the end of an era.

 I left the cinema feeling simultaneously uplifted and melancholic. Pondering my feelings and admiring Tarantino for the first time. Sure, it’s not without flaws, but I love it – a bit like LA itself.

The Martian – a review


“So, that means he’ll make it.”
“Unless something goes wrong…”

Yes, it’s that kind of movie. The short summary: Matt Damon – ‘Mark Watney’ is part of a manned mission to Mars set in the near future. In an emergency situation his team mates leave him behind, assuming him dead, as they scramble to escape the planet. He awakes alone, injured and with only a temporary shelter to live in, with enough food to last a few months. He knows however, that it will be about two years until the next mission to Mars arrives to save him.

Curiously, he has no way to communicate with Earth, even though moments before the opening gambit we have seen his team mates communicate with NASA. But, this plot device is used to create a bit of extra tension for both Mark and the folks back home.

There’s the central predicament of the movie: how will Mark survive until he can be rescued or until emergency supplies can reach him?

At this point, let me be straightforward: I didn’t like the movie. To me, it felt very paint by numbers. The absolute low point was the (paraphrased) quote above. The NASA people are discussing Mark’s survival odds and doing the math. They arrive at the conclusion that he’ll make it. The NASA director makes the obvious observation: unless something bad happens. And, lo and behold, in the very next shot, another random bit of disaster strikes our poor suffering Mark. The movie features a lot of cheering successes and fist pumping brouhaha which mostly felt out of place to me. Mark’s psychological developement doesn’t match what he’s actually going through to me. He’s a hero, squared.

And I’m sorry, but after ‘Newsroom’, you just can’t cast Jeff Daniels in a straight role anymore….he will always be anchorman Will McAvoy.

My conclusion: if you want to be kept on the edge of your seat in a NASA adventure, watch Apollo 13 (1995).

Op = Op

Ja, het is wat mij betreft bijna zover. Ik heb alles wat mij aantrekt wel zo’n beetje gezien op Netflix. Een punt van irritatie is dat van veel series die het kijken waard zijn niet alle seizoenen op het online kanaal staan. Maakt de overstap naar het illegale, gratis popcorntimes steeds verleidelijker…En qua speelfilms, dat beperkt zich voor mij helaas tot het genre: al gezien, of niet gezien met een reden.

Het raakt dus langzaam op. In de vorige post had ik al tips gegeven wat echt het kijken waard is. Veel bekende namen. Nu wat obscuurder – voor wie net als ik al heel veel gezien heeft!

‘Survivors’ een BBC serie blijkt na een veel te lange en langzame eerste aflevering behoorlijk vermakelijk: wat gebeurt er als 99 van de 100 mensen komen te overlijden aan een griepvirus…geen zombies, geen aliens, gewoon heel weinig mensen en complete chaos in het Engeland van nu. Leuke karakters en de premisse wordt geloofwaardig uitgewerkt. Na het eindeloze slachtwerk van Walking Dead ook erg prettig om een serie te kijken waar de spanning komt van iets anders dan bruut geweld.

‘The Kennedy’s’ een achtdelige biografische miniserie over de koninklijke familie van de VS. Houterig, uitleggerig en met ongelijkmatig tempo, maar wel fascinerend en mooi geënsceneerd.

‘Life on Mars’ een wat oudere BBC crimi met een twist. Een politie-agent in het heden wordt aangereden op het moment van een arrestatie in een grote zaak. Hij wordt wakker de jaren ’70. Is het echt of in zijn hoofd? Ben net pas begonnen aan seizoen twee maar seizoen een is mooi gemaakt, de premisse wordt goed ingevuld en houdt je op het puntje van je stoel. Af en toe valt op dat de decors wel erg vaak herhaald worden – tja er is nu eenmaal geen HBO achtig budget aan besteedt.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Man: “Who’s Gustave H.?”

Gustave H.: “I’m afraid that’s me, darling.”

The Grand Budapest Hotel is a welcome return to best form by the genius Wes Anderson. Yes, dear friends I used the “G” word. His previous effort “Moonrise Kingdom” left me underwhelmed but in this amazing comedy caper Anderson’s craft is close to his masterpiece, “The Royal Tenenbaums”.

The movie is set largely at a prestigious hotel in a fictional middle European nation before the war. The hero’s are the concierge, Gustave H., portrayed with brilliant swagger bij Ralph Fiennes, and his trainee bell boy Zero, played with great charm by new revelation Tony Revolori. They are involved in a convoluted caper involving a inheritance, a rennaissance painting, love, war and that great hotel on the hill.

The further cast is a veritable who’s who of Hollywood character talent. Obviously eager to give Wes their very best. A special shout must go to Jeff Goldblum for his portrayal of lawyer Kovac.

The story defies many rules of screenwriting, with heady voiceover, a convoluted story structure and a mix of humor and violence that writers are often counselled to avoid. But mr. A. has really pulled it all together. The movie offers a truly convincing balance of romanticism, a yearning for a glorious pre war era that may in fact, never have existed, humor, and action. It is easily Anderson’s most tightly plotted film.

GBH (also short for grevious bodily harm, of which there’s quite a lot in this film) is a visual spectacle. Never before has Anderson pulled out the stops to this degree. Shades of Monty Python, with certain scenes rendered in colourful animation.

The locations will leave you breathless in their design, both colourful and amazingly detailed. For example in the beginning of the movie we see the great Hotel, once opulent and stylish now reduced to a 70’s hell, complete with a plethora of signs on the walls with instructions, directions and prohibitions. I would love to see the movie again just to take in more of the backgrounds of practically every scene.

Yet, and this is where the film truly stands out, all the visual bravado and pomp never gets in the way of the characters. They feel truly human in their hopes and dreams, strengths and weaknesses. This is a great improvement over Moonrise Kingdom which at times felt like an exercise in esthetics rather than a movie about people…

In short, please go and see this movie.

The Hobbit 2 Desolation of Smaug

This Christmas was a big one for tentpole sequels. And they killed. The Hobbit and Hunger Games both packing in the punters, yours truly among them.

“Stay on the path!” – Gandalf

Christmas came early when I chanced upon the Desolation of Smaug at my local cinema in 2D. I have to admit, I really don’t get the whole 3D thing. Aside from Avatar, I’ve never really seen a 3D movie where it really added much. And oftentimes, aside from to uncomfortable murky glasses, I found that the darkened image detracts from the film experience.

On to the movie itself. I’ve heard many gripes about this film series and have to say that I don’t get it. As in the first installment, I simply really enjoyed the movie. Plenty of action, beautiful set design and a solid cast, including the always brilliant Stephen Fry as the wildly excentric mayor of Laketown. Yes, the music is the same Celtic mist cacaphony that Peter Jackson seems to love. But crikey, it’s got giant spiders in it too. And the lovely, did I say lovely Evangeline Lilly.

Hey what’s not to like? Sure it’s not high art, it is high entertainment. To me, the two meet somewhere in the middle, and to be honest, I simply enjoy things that are executed this well.

That said, it’s not particularily memorable. I don’t really know what the missing ingredient is. Perhaps it’s too slick. And some scenes are reminiscent of computer games rather than movies. Then again, the two are melding more and more into one and the same.

Finally, the fact that it is filmed primarily for 3D distribution leads to some strange un-cinematic framing choices. Shots that may work in 3D but just look awkward in 2D.

All in all, recommended to all.

The Counselor

“That’s what greed does, it takes you to the edge.” – The Counselor

“That’s what greed is, the edge” – Reiner

The Counselor is about an attorney, played well (but not brilliantly) by Michael Fassbender, who gets “in” on a huge drug deal. The others involved in this shady business try to warn him of the dangers but he ignores them. In stark contrast to this risky business is his true love for his fiance played by a very sultry Penelope Cruz.

There has been much negative press about Cormac McCarthy and Ridley Scott’s collaboration. I think much of it has to do with preconceptions about what this movie is. This is not a heist movie, nor a gangster/mob movie in any classical sense. What it is, is a cautionary tale, pure and simple. As such it is a great succes. Just don’t go in expecting a plot that you can really follow and you’ll be fine.

A stellar cast: the aforementioned Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Pitt, Bardem and a surprisingly excellent Cameron Diaz, fill the screen in filmic splendour. Sure, the dialogues are oftentimes convoluted. The plot is downright confusing. Many reviewers find that they just don’t get why the Counselor buys in on the deal.

But it all serves a purpose. We are watching the haves play risky games, whilst the have nots are largely silent and do the suffering. At least, until the shit hits the fan. And then, as the expression goes: everybody gets stinky or worse. No amount of coolness, aloofness or indeed true love can shield the players from the deadly fallout of their game. This is a harrowing tale that gets its message across by having the viewer experience the chaos, confusion and pain first hand.

For all those who think that cocaine is a harmless guilty pleasure, think again. There are people dying gruesome deaths to traffic it up your nose. That is the message Cormac seems to be sending. Coupled with the fact that its not really that much fun to be a gangster..

I was pleasantly surprised by The Counselor and give it a wholehearted thumbs up for being immersive, tragic and inevitable.


Elysium – review

“Activate Kruger” – Delacourt

Just recently I lucked upon District 9 on the telly. This 2009 film was Elysium writer/director Neil Blomkamp’s break into world cinema. A clever, cool, gripping, just frankly brilliant sci fi movie. Elysium mirrors District 9 in many ways, not least an overlap of a few cast members. Most notably Sharlto Copley in a great turn as evil enforcer Kruger, an exact reversal of his starring role in District 9. However, to me, Elysium lacked the emotional punch and impact of its precursor. And here’s why.

The titular “Elysium” is an off world paradise, whence the rich have escaped a distopian overpopulated earth. To get there, is to live forever in health and wealth. Matt Damon plays Max, an orphan whose ambition in life has always been to make it to Elysium – as he has promised his child hood friend (and sweetheart?) Frey.

The paradise is run by an ice cold Jodie Foster, in a weird off world accent that she pulls off really well. She’s ruthless in protecting Elysium from attempted illegal immigrants.

The movie takes its time in laying down the ground rules, which is so often the bane of hard sci fi. It does stick to those rules, so there is some pay back for a rather slow first half. The stakes are high, and the plot meshes reasonably well.

But there is something lacking. Is it simply hard to really care about Matt Damon? To me the most effective scene in the movie was where Max confronts his parole officer – a robot (pictured above) to no avail. Reminding me of the infuriating exchanges with AT&T automated call centres…..

The reunion with Max’ estranged childhood friend feels forced, and their relationship never really convinced me. This is a serious problem, as this is the main emotional through line.

A shout out to Neil Blomkamp’s designs and visual style though. That guy is seriously good. The insectoid designs of space craft and droids are simply finger licking good. He also has a real eye for combat action direction and I salute him for not filming in “glorious”3D!

So, sure, it’s a fun ride, but in the end it all clicked together too smoothly and rather predictably, and I felt no emotional pangs at the dramatic close. In fact, the ending was almost completely ruined by a very sappy voice-over….

All in all, if you want to be amused for a few hours by stunningly styled sci fi action, Elysium is your bet. If you want to be moved…look elswhere.


World War Z

“Mother nature is a bitch”

Just a quicky, as I’ve been pretty busy refurbishing my new house. The missus and I found time to go see this summer blockbuster. And, to be frank, I really enjoyed it. The wife did so too, though she is still worried about zombies getting into our house, which just goes to show that the movie is certainly effective.

Brad Pitt plays the lead as a retired UN special agent, who is forced back into his old job in order to save the world from a mysterious and rabid plague that has all but destroyed the civilised world: a zombie plague. He has a wife and kids and such, but they disappear from the movie in any real sense after the first act. Which is a wasted opportunity. The movie’s plot consists of mr. Pitt zipping around the globe searching for a cure against the zombie plague. Amazing how it’s still possible to travel with the world in turmoil…

The film is shown in 3D, once again I have no idea why. I have heard from Hollywood sources that due to the strange logic in Tinseltown it’s now easier to get financing for a 200 million dollar 3D movie than a 50 million dollar “normal” movie. Alas.

The story is well thought out, fun and exciting. There are a few plot holes, but on the whole the movie adheres to Hitchcock’s “sandwich logic” rule. (The average viewer will figure out the plot holes only when making a late night sandwich, at home, hours after seeing the movie).

The zombies are well done, and in contrast with the existing “mythology of zombie-ism” move with lightning speed. This makes them a lot more scary than the usual lollygagging zombies of yore.

There are some great set pieces which use effective CGI, although the lemming-like crowd storming that is shown to great effect in the movie’s trailer is less of a feature in the actual movie, which is a shame. Here’s the trailer:


The way Brad finally figures out a way to defeat the zombies is well thought out and occurs in the most exciting part of the film: an almost classic set-up of man vs. zombie in a laboratory. After all the whizzing round the globe to find the clues to the solution, this cramped, tense finale just goes to show that less may in fact, be more…

Winding up. It’s a summer blockbuster, but a pretty good one, which I can recommend to most. It’s not half as frightening as my wife made it appear, but we did agree to go see something more akin to Despicable Me 2 next time we go to the theatre to relax…


The Place Beyond the Pines

“The Place Beyond the Pines” – this is not a heist movie.

Not having seen writer director Derek Cianfrance’s much acclaimed “Blue Valentine” or, anything starring Ryan Gosling, I decided to find out what the buzz was all about.

Beyond the Pines, is at the very least, an interesting film. It has a decidedly off kilter structure, consisting of three distinct chapters. The film makes a larger, slightly obvious point that decisions have consequences further down the line than one can imagine.


The story begins with Ryan Gosling’s character, “Handsome Luke” a danger seeker, motorbike carny, touring the land doing a risky motorcycle act. He runs into an old fling, played subtly by a surprising Eva Mendes. He finds out that she has had his child and decides to step up and “care for” the kid, even though there is no apparent objective need to do so.

He goes a step further by robbing banks to scratch this character driven itch. Of course, this is a really bad decision, one which through the coincidental involvement of rookie cop Avery, played well enough by Bradley Cooper, will have far reaching consequences – for all involved, for many years to come. Thus the wheels are set in motion that will crush the  generations, or will they? It’s an ambitious story, and emotionally gripping.

My only beef is that practically all the characters in the movie seem to make really bad decisions all the time, therefore the rather somber effects are to be expected. There is but little light at the end of the tunnel.

Still, the acting is above par, the film is beautifully lit and scored and it certainly makes for an atmospheric masterpiece. There is a real sense of claustrophobic foreboding that these ghost of Christmas past will not let things lie.

As stated above, I have not seen Blue Valentine, although I now definitely want to, but it appears that from the microcosm of a single relationship, Derek Cianfrance really wanted to expand his range, the scope of the story. This leads to the film feeling slightly disconnected and forced at times. Yet, I still give it a full thumbs up.



Spring Breakers


“We came here to find out who we are”

“Spring Breakers” is not “The Hangover” starring four hot chicks having a whacky adventure during spring break. Yes, there are four very hot chicks, but this movie is no laughing matter. In fact, I still wonder whether it takes itself a bit too seriously..

The plot, as such, deals with four 18 year olds being bored at Nowhereville State college, not having the dough to go to spring break in Florida. One of them is the odd one out, the rather obviously named Faith, a practising Christian.

The other three resort to rather violent measures to find the cash to take them to Florida. They succeed without a hiccup.

Soon the girls are enjoying the delights of an an overtly stereotypical spring break. Drugs, drink, booties, boobies, tatoos, it’s all there.

However, even though the girls seem to be having fun, it doesn’t particularly come across as fun, and through montage and camera angles there is always a sense of unease, and impending doom. For me, this is where the film really shines. Showing the dark side of this endless, brainless party, without in fact “showing” it.

There are typical mindless meandering voice-overs by the girls, all about paradise, lovely people, new friends, and how they are truly finding themselves. For me, this all added to the atmosphere, although it was grating and repetitive at times.

The film did take a while to get going again, after all, even for a red blooded male, there’s so much teen bootie party imagery one can stand. But when the turn takes place half way through, you’ll know it hit.

James Franco pops up, an actor I really dislike in general. However, here, he is well cast. Being an annoying stoner “G” suits him. He is a perfect mixture of the ridiculous and threatening. The film descends into fantasy as it nears the end, losing some of its potency.

And after the, once again violent, finale, one is left with a question: what is this film maker trying to say. Is it a critique of modern day youth hedonism? Or simply a rip snorting wild ride to the dark side….or perhaps a bit of both.

One thing is for sure, writer/director Harmony Korine is one to watch!