Tag: margot robbie

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood


Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

There comes a point in “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” when more self-aware viewers will notice that it no longer matters where the plot goes because it is so damn entertaining. Whether writer-director Quentin Tarantino is placing a magnifying glass on his characters, the cars they drive, the clothes they wear, the brand of drinks and cigarettes consumed, the soundtrack caressing our eardrums, the curious decorations on walls… the film is an enveloping experience right from the get-go—daring to be as specific as possible to create a thoroughly convincing 1969 Los Angeles. And yet, as shown during the third act, it is not afraid to take on a pint of historical revisionism. At its best I was reminded of Robert Altman’s signature works, how he manages to attain a seemingly effortless synergy between his fascinating characters and the roles they play in the city of angels.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt is a duo I never thought I needed. The former plays Rick Dalton, a fading star who must now rely on taking secondary roles in western television shows. He fears that his career is on the verge of death both due to the changing times and his own alcoholism. The latter plays Cliff Booth, Rick’s best friend and stuntman. However, these days, because of his… certain reputation surrounding his wife, he is currently, for the most part, Rick’s housekeeper, driver, and motivational speaker. Even though these men are flawed in their own ways, DiCaprio and Pitt are correct to play Rick and Cliff as people who are worthy of getting to know. For instance, just because Rick is an alcoholic does not mean that he does not work hard to ensure he is prepared on set. On the contrary, he is quite hard on himself, especially when he forgets lines and appears to look foolish in front of the crew. (There is a hilarious bit of his rage inside a trailer.)

Due to Tarantino’s well-written and keen observed characters, the screenplay works as a comic character study. There are times even when someone is on the verge of tears, we wish to laugh at him. But at the same time we do not dislike or feel repelled by him. It is a comedy that attempts to skewer personalities in Hollywood without having the need to be cruel. In other words, there is a certain joy about the film that is consistently good-hearted while still remaining razor-sharp. There is not enough movies of this type being released today, especially at this caliber. Thus, this makes the sudden shift during third act as potentially divisive: the violence changing from internal to external. The catharsis worked for me, but I imagine it may not for many. There is no doubt it is the more convenient avenue for entertainment.

Aside from Rick and Cliff, we meet other colorful personalities over the course of one February weekend. There is Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) who goes to the movies to see if audiences would be receptive of her role as a klutz in an action-comedy; Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) bragging around the crew in between shoots; Squeaky (Dakota Fanning), a member of the infamous Manson Family, who confronts a stranger at her door; and Randy (Kurt Russell), a stunt coordinator who gives Cliff a chance to work despite the fact that his wife (Zoë Bell), also a stunt coordinator, does not wish for Cliff to remain on set. Each person gets a chance to shine because the writer-director proves to be most patient and not at all tethered to a typical running time of ninety minutes.

The love for filmmaking can be felt in every square inch of “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.” Despite its running time of over one hundred fifty minutes, I could not get enough of it. Here is a movie that includes an exchange between an eight-year-old method actor (Julia Butters—her character prefers to be called an actor, not an actress) and DiCaprio, he himself known for method acting, just for the laughs. In the hands of less confident filmmakers, or filmmakers granted less freedom, it is highly likely this bit would not have made it past the editing room. But sometimes so-called extraneous material adds more personality to the work. This picture is filled to the brim with memorable personalities.

Mary Queen of Scots


Mary Queen of Scots (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

It is true that a film can be savagely historically inaccurate but still remain entertaining. A good example is “Mary Queen of Scots,” based on the book “Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart” by John Guy and written for the screen by Beau Willimon, proud—as it should be—of its endless parade of beautiful imagery despite monarchs becoming increasingly miserable throughout its duration. Those seeking for a history lesson, or reminder, should opt to sit through a documentary instead because the picture wishes to present political intrigue first and facts second. And there is nothing wrong with that.

The work is propelled by strong performances: Saoirse Ronan as the titular character who returns to Scotland following her husbands death whose goal, she claims, is to bring peace to her home country. At the same time she hopes to reclaim the throne from her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I, ruler of England and Ireland. The latter is played by Margot Robbie and it is quite fascinating that although she is on screen far less than her counterpart, she nails every scene with verve and bravado—as expected from consummate performer. On the other hand, Ronan’s face is nearly in every scene but her overall sense of being is so luminous that I could not get enough of it. She is so regal not just in the way she stands, or walks, or talks but also in the way she breathes and pauses, how she looks at another depending on the gravity of a scene.

The premise hints at a war between Mary and Elizabeth, but I enjoyed that the material is willing to go in surprising directions. Although it leans toward Mary’s camp—appropriate given that the story is about her beauty, youth, bravery, and fierce intelligence—Elizabeth is not painted as a monster. Instead, it makes a point that she, like Mary, is a tragic figure. She is called a queen but in many ways she is a prisoner of her kingdom, her people, and her own expectations. We see Mary and also Elizabeth but the latter is perceived through the scope of a broken mirror. It is amazing that the subjects appear on screen only once but a good amount of drama is excavated nonetheless.

I found it curious that not once did I feel sorry the two women—which I think may be one of the points that director Josie Rourke wishes to come across. Melodrama is kept at a minimum; when sad occurrences unfold, the score, for the most part, is not there to manipulate our emotions. There is an air of detachment, a matter-of-fact telling of what happened. I do think, however, that we are supposed to appreciate the cousins’ desperation, whether it be to prove themselves worthy of the power they are handed (or claimed) despite and because of their gender.

Notice the more uncomfortable moments when men of lower rank address their queen as if she were a common whore. These are moments when we are jolted into paying attention. At times the women’s restraint is admirable; we become convinced that they have had considerable experience in leading their nations prior to the timeline of this particular story.

“Mary Queen of Scots” requires patience and an open mind. Its pacing is deliberately slow but effective—until the final fifteen to twenty minutes when it rushes to finish line for no compelling reason other than to meet the two-hour mark. I would have preferred a work closer to two-and-a-half or perhaps even three hours as long as it is able to maintain its rhythm and momentum. When unhurried, I was most invested in its world of political chess.

Z for Zachariah


Z for Zachariah (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★

After a nuclear war, the majority of the planet became uninhabitable. One of the exceptions is the valley that Ann (Margot Robbie) resides in which was somehow protected by the nuclear fallout and quite possibly has its own weather system. Although Ann has lived with family, it has been a year since the rest of them attempted to find survivors outside of the valley. To her surprise, while doing her usual chores and rounds, Ann crosses paths with a man named John (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a research engineer wearing a suit designed to protect from radioactivity. Soon enough, despite their initial but important differences, they decide to live together.

“Z for Zachariah,” directed by Craig Zobel, is a contemplative piece that works as a chamber drama and barebones science fiction. Credit to the casting directors for choosing actors that are comfortable portraying many different emotions very often in one scene. This is because, aside from the main plot involving faith and science, the film is also about the images the characters paint in the viewer’s mind as they recollect traumatic memories.

Scenes that stand out involve characters simply sharing a meal or standing in a room and talking to one another. Particularly moving is when Ann opens up about her extremely isolated existence in the farm, what she had to go through before meeting John. We get a taste of her lifestyle during the first ten minutes as she trudges forward during her usual routine, a dog being her sole companion. Although the word “suicide” is never uttered, the subject is brought up with an elegance and a sadness. One cannot blame her for considering such an action and yet one ought to commend her strength for ultimately continuing to live, to keep fighting.

The pacing is slow and deliberate which is most appropriate in a story like this. Thus, the material is successful is building a lot of sexual tension between John and Ann. It is critical that we believe they are eventually drawn to each other, despite their differences especially when it comes to believing in God, because their feelings for one another—whatever it is exactly—is challenged later, upon the arrival of Caleb (Chris Pine), who claims that he is on his way south due to news that there is a colony of survivors there.

On some level, the picture works as a thriller in the final third as we begin to question how far a character, or characters, is willing to go in order to defend or upend the status quo. The ambiguous ending is wonderfully executed because clues are laid out for further dissection. It is up to us to decide which avenue to believe. In the wrong hands, it could have been simplistic, too fixed, altogether too clear, offering no sense of mystery or questioning. More importantly, the ending shoves us into the mindset of its characters.

Loosely based on the novel by Robert C. O’Brien, “Z for Zachariah” is a piece of work that is polished, certainly shot beautifully, but has enough roughness around the edges—its ability to take risks to be exact—to keep it fascinating. It is made for a more contemplative, empathetic audience.

I, Tonya


I, Tonya (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

How does one take a punchline like Tonya Harding, disgraced figure skater banned for life from the sport she loves due to an FBI investigation which concluded she was connected to the planned attack on her rival Nancy Kerrigan, and make the subject interesting without undergoing a redemption arc so typical of biographical dramas? Make it a dark comedy. But not just any standard dark comedy. Make it pitch-black, smart, full of crackling wit, ensure every performance commands electric energy, and force the audience to feel how it is like to wear the shoes of a person whom the public and the media labeled as a villain.

“I, Tonya,” written by Steven Rogers and directed by Craig Gillespie, delivers a rollercoaster of emotions which is not typically employed in a mockumentary-style storytelling. For instance, just when we are relishing laughter from the savage verbal affront Tonya’s mother (Allison Janney) delivers to everyone within a ten-foot radius, a scene right after it shows, unblinkingly, Tonya (Margot Robbie) being hit in the face like a punching bag by her dolt of a husband (Sebastian Stan). And just when we think we know how the formula works, rules are turned inside out and upside down. Due to its ability to shift and evolve, what results is a highly watchable project, unpredictable at nearly every turn.

For a good while of the picture, I couldn’t help but wonder about the work’s intended target audience. Surely it must not be solely for those who are familiar with Harding’s fall from grace. While it is understandable to wish to know more about the scandal, I felt that appealing to such a group is too easy, almost painfully obvious. Toward the end, however, it becomes clear that perhaps the target audience is younger people, perhaps middle school or high school students with a dream, youths who didn’t yet exist in 1994.

I reach this conclusion because Harding’s background is emphasized by the material, not only through words but also using images. Harding’s broken family is poor, not only financially but also that of a loving home, and she is surrounded by others who do not aspire to become anything more than what is available around town. There is more aspiration to become famous or recognized or financially successful than there is making sure one works hard to attain and complete an education. There is a wonderful scene, perfectly delivered by nuanced Robbie, in complete control of her range of emotions and facial expressions, where Harding makes a plea to the judge who delivered her sentence. The film is at its rawest here.

Despite the picture’s occasional ability to move the audience from one extreme to the other, the age of the performers cannot be ignored. Robbie and Stan playing fifteen-year-olds up until their characters are in their early twenties, braces and awkward mustaches included, is completely unconvincing. It is most distracting when the dialogue brings up their ages for no good reason. This miscalculation could have been avoided somewhat had the filmmakers relied on the title cards, which depict the passage of time, and left it for the audience to assume the age of the characters.

“I, Tonya” has a rock ’n’ roll vibe that does not fit at all with polished, classy, expensive biographical films—the correct decision because the film’s spirit must match its intriguing and complex specimen. I admired that it is willing to get down and dirty, welts and bruises included, to ensure that we give it our undivided attention. It earns the time we put into it.

Suicide Squad


Suicide Squad (2016)
★★ / ★★★★

David Ayer’s “Suicide Squad” has an approach problem. Despite the picture being about villainous persons forcibly recruited by the government to be of some use to society, what it offers is a standard action film fare with a whole lot of shooting and explosions but not enough thoughts and compelling motivations. What results is a forgettable mediocrity, extremely frustrating given the talent involved from in front and behind the camera.

Think of classic video games where avatars are controlled from left to right. Throughout our journey to the showdown with the big bad at the end, we are provided physical challenges such as henchmen and pitfalls. It were as if this film is inspired by such a setup—the only difference is that such games are a lot more fun to play than it is to watch this movie because the former actually engages while the latter seems intent on keeping the audience passive.

The lack of characterization is astounding—a problem because we are supposed to care about them eventually, as individuals and as “family.” Out of the group, only about three are somewhat interesting: Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), and Deadshot (Will Smith). The rest are either reduced to one-liner sock puppets (Killer Croc played by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje and Katana portrayed by Karen Fukuhara) or are stuck with eye-rollingly bad, soap opera-like, vomit-scented romance (Rick Flag played by Joel Kinnaman and Cara Delevingne portraying Enchantress). One wonders halfway through whether the writer-director had been replaced by an impostor given that the Ayer’s previous works, such as “End of Watch” and “Fury,” function on such a high level of intelligence, wit, humanity despite the chaos that threatens to consume its subjects whole.

Delevingne is completely miscast as the central villain. Although she has the extreme looks in takes to have an interesting face to look at, I found her unable to emote more than three emotions. Her scenes are excruciatingly bad, at times downright laughable because when the character is supposed to exude menace, Enchantress merely does some sort of dance. The filmmakers do not even bother to use Delevingne’s voice as Enchantress. It gives the impression that the performer is hired simply for her looks, not for her talent.

Jared Leto as the Joker is one bad joke. Although the issue is not completely Leto’s portrayal, given that the editing is so manic that it fails to take the time to rest simply on the performer’s face so we are able to cherish every droplet of controlled insanity, it is still apparent that Leto is acting. Not once did I believe he is the titular villain; he is the knock-off version who is trying too hard to be impressive. And that’s problem with this particular character: the more you try to play it big, the faster you sink in quicksand.

There is one excellent scene that takes place is a bar, a moment when the motley crew decides to take a break from all the unimpressive, ugly, formulaic action and simply talk to one another. It is perhaps the best moment in the film because the camera is at its stillest and there is silence. And so when a character says one thing and another reacts a certain way, we are drawn to what is unfolding rather than simply sitting back, eyes half-closed, wishing for a better anti-superhero movie.