A film Mike was doing his damndest to avoid seeing but eventually agreed to, Babylon is an epic period comedy-drama about the excess and industrialisation of Hollywood in the ’20s and ’30s, and an epic bomb at the box office. Its aesthetics, characterisations, use of race and class, vulgarity, set pieces, bizarre ending and more are up for discussion. Did Mike have as terrible a time as he anticipated?
We indulge in a caper inspired by a real-life attempted overthrow of the US government – no, not that one. The Business Plot of 1933 was alleged to have been planned by business leaders, aggrieved by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s election, who sought to remove him and install a retired major general as dictator, and in telling a loose version of this story, writer-director David O. Russell chucks in a doctor, a lawyer, and a wildcard, played by Christian Bale, John David Washington, and Margot Robbie, respectively.
Amsterdam has been a colossal bomb at the box office, and despite its many attractions – including surely the richest and most exciting cast you’ll see all year – we can understand why. It’s on the long side, it’s fuzzy, it’s overwritten, and its messaging, while agreeable, is banal… but it’s also full of charm and novelty, and Christian Bale hasn’t been this fun to watch for ages. Mike’s typically had a cool relationship with Russell’s films but finds this one easy to like; José is less in tune with it, particularly its comic tone, but still enjoys his time with it. It’s imperfect, but deserving of a more welcome reception than it’s had, and worth seeing.
Apparently dissatisfied with the dismal reception of 2016’s Suicide Squad, DC has bravely decided to vaguely reboot the property with a spot-the-difference name change to The Suicide Squad, probably hoping that this new film will effortlessly send its predecessor down the memory hole. We ask whether it hits that whimsical tone it clearly wants to and discuss imperialism, satire, racism, gazing at males, rats, story structure, excessive volume and more.
Trying to build a portrait of patriarchal power and subjugation that shapes the lives of five women, Birds of Prey takes a solid enough foundation and executes it abysmally, lacking visual style, coherent storytelling, and really any imagination. It’s the worst time José’s endured at the cinema in a year; Mike heroically offers a couple of examples of moments he enjoyed – the flying sandwich – but there’s no rescuing these damsels in distress.
The film that wants to make us feel bad for people who worked at Fox News, Bombshell casts former stars Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson as heroines fighting the revolting, crude, institutional sexism of their former place of work. It refuses to do so with any complexity, any suggestion that they were anything but victims – that they had all the opportunity to say no to the hideous deal they were offered, and that they were, too, key players in a propaganda machine, pumping poison into the world. It’s a view of the world that, at best, has been simplified for popular consumption, relegating criticism of Fox News’ politics, operations, and output to a laughably basic subplot involving a lesbian Democrat employee who explains the machinery of Fox’s messaging.
Mike suggests that it sits alongside the work of Adam McKay, who, like Bombshell director Jay Roach, made his name in comedy, offering the term “satire-adjacent” in an attempt to understand this breed of film – McKay’s Vice and The Big Short have a similar tone and basis in reality. Where we decried the lack of satire these days when discussing Jojo Rabbit, perhaps we’ve found where it’s been relocated. And there are things about it he likes, this kind of sociopolitical talkie being up his street, though our highest praise is reserved for the performances, John Lithgow’s explosive, sinister Roger Ailes, and Charlize Theron’s unbelievable transformation into Megyn Kelly, in particular.
Mike feared it might be the most tasteless film ever made. José doesn’t look forward to Quentin Tarantino films. But we both came away from this fantastical reimagining of a near-mythological era of Hollywood history having had a great time. Tellingly, for a film that exceeds two and a half hours, we both felt the time fly by.
Tarantino’s love for and expert knowledge of Hollywood and cinema informs all of his work, and arguably not that consequentially – he cribs shots, pastiches genres, and evokes styles and tones specific to cinema, but to debatable significant effect beyond the superficial. But in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (OUATIH for brevity’s sake), the decision to bring this passion to the surface and tell a story directly about Hollywood results in Tarantino’s most meaningful and personal film. What he values is brazenly displayed here, and, Mike suggests, isn’t entirely pleasant to examine. He finds OUATIH initially troubling in this regard – with a day’s reflection on it, he comes to see it as deeply conservative and protective of privilege. In digging this up, we discuss its sexual politics, the way it uses race, and the clash it represents between the old and the new in a rapidly changing 1969 Hollywood. Mike argues that, as in 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino’s revisionism revealingly reflects his fantasy of what an ideal world would look like and contain, and in this case it’s a little uneasy to stomach. He also takes issue with the way the Manson family are used, but not, as he feared, for reasons of taste – Charles Manson wasn’t in Hollywood by chance, he wanted stardom, and for a film in which the desire for and loss of stardom are interests, to show no interest in drawing a thematic link here is more evidence of Tarantino’s retrograde attitude.
The flip side to this coin is that the things Tarantino loves are wonderfully, warmly depicted. OUATIH is as much about television as it is cinema, if not more so, and Tarantino offers imagined and reimagined TV shows of many types in evoking in detail the time and place in which he grew up. To José, about the same age as Tarantino, there abound countless nostalgic pleasures; to Mike, disgustingly born 30 years too late, the film’s enthusiasm and obvious knowledge about its setting rubs off easily. The film easily convinces you to love what it loves, be it silly, overblown action movies; cheesy, overblown TV acting; or Brad Pitt’s Hawaiian shirt, which in one scene blows off.
Speaking of Pitt, José considers this his best performance, one in which he switches from evoking coolness and control to dumb and tripping balls. But for all the little touches and tone he brings to his character, Leonardo DiCaprio brings entirely different registers. His performance is a tour de force, his Rick, a declining Western star, constantly performing, even only to himself at times, and at every moment his emotions and thoughts are crystal clear, even under layer upon layer of performance. DiCaprio practically shapeshifts in sketches depicting Rick’s old movies and television appearances, and offers a sympathetic portrait of a star unable to adapt to his changing environment. It’s a rich, demanding role, and DiCaprio is spellbinding in meeting its challenge.
You’d be doing yourself a disservice missing Once Upon a Time in Hollywood at the cinema. It’s an excited, passionate trip through a Hollywood fantasy, hilarious, light, and thoroughly enjoyable – though, like so many fantasies, its underbelly is dark.
A very interesting article by Mark Olsen on the film´s ending can be found in the LA Times
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The story of Tonya Harding raises all manner of issues for us to delve into. I, Tonya is a film about class, domestic abuse, celebrity, opportunity, achievement. We examine its visual design and use of competing aspect ratios, its use of direct address to camera, and the conceptualisation of the working class characters and mother-daughter relationship. Mike believes it insists upon Tonya Harding’s fame too heavily, not aware of how she’s only really remembered in the USA. Jose finds its portrayal of working class people uncomfortable. An energetic discussion.
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Mike and I have not seen all the films nominated. But we have seen most of the work nominated in the main categories and, with those qualifications in mind, we engage in preliminary discussion on the films, performances and cinematography nominated in the major categories. It’s also an opportunity for us to revisit and renew our appreciation of some our favourite films.
The podcast can be listened to in the player above or on iTunes.
Thank you very much for your feedback. It’s most welcome. It’s already led to some changes we hope you see as improvements. And it’s always great to have a dialogue on film so please keep the comments coming.
Jared Leto’s look and performance were the only thing I really loved about Suicide Squad: he moves from innocent, heightened, romance to some leering looney almost before our eyes; the kind of transformation one remembers from childhood cartoon characters; and he brings a completely new spin to the role Heath Ledger put such a strong stamp on that it’s been his until now. But no longer. Leto seems all sweet and innocent and then he begins to leer in a lewd and suggestive way; it’s like sex mixed in with innocence and somehow rendered sweet instead of pervy because it’s the meeting of souls that the Joker and Harley Quinn are after.I though Leto wonderful; he and Margot Robbie together looked like they’d been sketched by the same artist and their relationship is a looney romance that lifts the film every time they share a scene. Most of the rest of the performers were fine, and they did look the part, especially Robbie, though maybe because her role is larger than Leto’s it was easy to see how repetitive it became as the film unfolded. I did find Cara Delevingne quite terrible in the long shots, like she had no idea how a Goddess should move and was simply trying to remember what frenzy had been like in the High School Discos.She’s not much better in the close-ups. Her performance and that of Viola Davis made me think what a straight-jacket ‘realism’ has become to American acting. Like they can’t imagine a stylised performance structured purely for the purpose of effects. What a pity.
But the performers weren’t the problem….At the moment none of these big budget movies seem to know how to do action; yet that’s their bread and butter; they do the look: things exploding, characters poised for movement, explosive backgrounds. But there’s no thrills at, say, an action completed because the quick cutting prevents one from seeing it; and narratively, there doesn’t seem to be anything at stake in the action: we don’t know the consequences of a shot or a movement, or even what the characters need to do to get out of a situation: it’s barely narrated and it’s not dramatised at all. And yet these films are almost all action; so if that’s not working, the spectacle actually ends up not being very spectacular. I found it dull and noisy. And I’m sorry to say that as I’ve really admired David Ayer’s work in End of Watch and Fury.