Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)

Look, everyone else has registered their opinion on this film by now, and the discourse is frankly probably pretty boring to you all. But I wrote this when I saw it a few weeks ago, and I might as well put it on my blog, because I have mixed feelings.


I don’t think the world needs another review of this film, and those I’ve seen (at least amongst the people I follow on here, and in the press) have run the gamut, to say the least, and among them have been some very solid critiques and responses. My own feelings are fairly mixed, and the experience reminds me somewhat of Blue Is the Warmest Colour in the sense that it mixes technical prowess I really love to watch with some amazing performances, but has other stuff I feel is deeply questionable (and also is almost three hours long).

So let me focus on the positives. Some of the earliest criticism I’d seen focused on Margot Robbie’s character, Sharon Tate — and sure, she doesn’t say much — but in the end she had the scenes I enjoyed the most, and was the heart of the film. Those scenes of her in the cinema (with, yes, her feet up in the foreground), totally digging the film she’s watching, the film she herself stars in, and getting a kick out of the audience reactions around her: that was pure cinema. I loved that. (What Tarantino is to Godard, so Robbie here is to Anna Karina in Vivre sa vie.) I also loved the scenes of her next door neighbour Rick, the washed-up TV star, when he’s making a pilot for a new Western show — it’s where DiCaprio does his best acting (and it’s lovely to see a bit of Luke Perry, too). Usually I hate when filmmakers depict their own craft, because they rarely show how films are actually made and instead make them into these continuous scenes with barely any intervention. Well, I went with it here partly because the framework of this whole film is fantasy, and so when Tarantino shows the filming of a show, he completely omits all the cameras except the one we’re watching through (and the off-screen voice of the director, in this case “Sam Wanamaker”).

But then there’s the more troubling stuff, and I suppose it comes down to how you’re responding to this, and what you think Tarantino’s position is. He’s doing a lot of pastiche work here, and I imagine that recreating 1969 Hollywood, the films and TV shows themselves, the look and feel, the road signs and the fonts and the adverts and the packaging and all that, was probably a really big part of the appeal. When Tarantino talks about films he loves (as he does on podcasts and interviews with film publications), I am convinced by his all-out nerdery, and I think he’s extremely knowledgeable about that stuff. But pastiching a nasty exploitation film within the film (such as when Rick plays a character with a flamethrower burning up some Nazis in an on-screen role for some kind of Corman B-movie quickie) and making that part of your own filmed fantasy world (such as the next time we see that flamethrower) feel like qualitatively different things, and I’m pretty sure he’s getting off on the fun of staging it all rather than considering its moral implications.

Then again, for me, part of it is also just hearing people react with pleasure and enjoyment around me in the cinema when this kind of nastiness is happening, so maybe it’s not all on QT, but it’s also not unrelated to his strategies in the film and as part of his involvement in wider film discourse. I think he takes great pains to problematise this stuff in, for example, Cliff’s character — almost a leaf from the Haneke playbook (and, to be clear, I dislike most of Haneke’s films). Pitt’s laidback golden boy likeability as Cliff is clearly intentionally offset by his use of weird little off-hand racialised slurs and, more to the point, the insistent hints about his character’s dark past. This comes to a head in the scene with Bruce Lee via the forthright and unironic response of Janet (who plays the wife of Kurt Russell’s stunt coordinator character Rudy, but is also OUATIH‘s actual stunt coordinator, and given that Brad Pitt is playing a stuntman himself, is I think a pointed intervention). It’s an intervention from 2019, and it’s hardly the only one, but there’s plenty enough that doesn’t feel particularly informed by present circumstances, and so when I dislike this film, it feels particularly egregious because there’s so much stuff he’s doing — technically and visually, but also with some of the characters — that I love and could have made for a more rewarding film.

But I don’t want to be that person critiquing a film for not being the film I wanted it to be. And so I shall continue to think about Margot Robbie looking up at the movie screen with such sheer unalloyed pleasure in the moving image, and wish that I could be her.

CREDITS
Director/Writer Quentin Tarantino; Cinematographer Robert Richardson; Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Al Pacino, Dakota Fanning, Margaret Qualley; Length 161 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho [35mm], London, Tuesday 20 August 2019.

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آخر أيام المدينة Akher Ayam el Madina (In the Last Days of the City, 2016)

As one of the world’s great cities (and most ancient), plenty of films have been made and set in Cairo. Aside from the film in the title of this post, a pseudo-documentary fiction about the city focused on a filmmaker (for Cairo is also a centre for Arabic language filmmaking), I’ve also included a short review of a short film directed by the great Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine.


Somehow I’d got it into my head before going to see it that this was a documentary — a poetic documentary perhaps, a city symphony of sorts, but a documentary nonetheless. It’s not, but it does hover somewhere on a border that makes the fiction it tells somehow more imbued with melancholy and a sort of immediacy, even if it’s been over six years since the scenes were filmed. It also serves as an effective love letter to Cairo, a city in flux even as it was filmed, with buildings crumbling and disappearing. It uses the character of a filmmaker (Khalid Abdalla), making its fiction endlessly metatextual, as we see him manipulate the image, discuss the project with filmmaker friends, even commission the calligraphy which appears as this film’s title card in the end credits. There’s no grand plot besides his own work to finish the film, but there are threads of a life in turmoil: looking for a flat, nursing his mother, pining after his girlfriend, and fearing for friends in other war-torn Middle Eastern countries. It also doesn’t hurt that the Cairo the filmmaker captures is such a beautiful place, and plenty of the shots hardly need to do more than frame a sunset or a city skyline.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Tamer El Said تامر السعيد; Writers El Said and Rasha Salti رشا سلطي; Cinematographer Bassem Fayad باسم فياض; Starring Khalid Abdalla خالد عبد الله; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Wednesday 27 September 2017.

Continue reading “آخر أيام المدينة Akher Ayam el Madina (In the Last Days of the City, 2016)”

Two 1988 Films by Agnès Varda: Jane B. by Agnès V. and Kung-Fu Master!

Both these films were made by Varda as collaborations with Jane Birkin. The idea for Kung-Fu Master! came from Birkin during the production of Jane B. and so Varda helped her realise the concept. Varda’s similarly playful (and similarly titled) final film Varda par Agnès (2019) is released in the UK this Friday 19 July.

Continue reading “Two 1988 Films by Agnès Varda: Jane B. by Agnès V. and Kung-Fu Master!”

Criterion Sunday 171: Le Mépris (Contempt, 1963)

I’ve seen this film of Godard’s several times over the decades (and have written about it here before) and I feel both compelled and distanced from it, though that may be by design. It’s about filmmaking at a certain level, it’s about the clash of cultures, it’s about a relationship being torn apart (mirroring Godard and Anna Karina, one presumes, at least to a point) and it’s about a lot in between, but mainly it’s about contempt. Not least, one might extrapolate, that includes the director’s difficulty with women, suggesting a certain unknowability. It’s beautiful and hard, and contains a lot, and for all that I don’t necessarily enjoy its characters, I think the filmmaking is about as good as Godard managed.

Criterion Extras: There are plenty of extras on a 2 DVD set, including Encounter with Fritz Lang (1964), a short film in which the director speaks a little on the set of Contempt, but is mostly clips illustrating his architectural style in his early German work. There’s also two Jacques Rozier short films. Le Parti des choses: Bardot et Godard (1964) is a slight little piece about Godard filming Bardot, which takes a sort of philosophical path. However, the better is Paparazzi (1964). Brigitte Bardot, it turns out, was very famous in the 60s, and this film deals with obsessive photographers using a fairly recently-coined term. Those guys are still with us because they’ve become embedded into a system that reinforces and commodifies fame, and that is hinted at with the context of magazine sales, but this short film is mostly about how they were annoying when she was filming Contempt. It’s quite strikingly put together, and has a zingy energy to it. Other extras include an interview with cinematographer Raoul Coutard, an audio commentary, and an hour-long discussion between Fritz Lang and Godard called The Dinosaur and the Baby (1967).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard (based on Il disprezzo by Alberto Moravia); Cinematographer Raoul Coutard; Starring Brigitte Bardot, Michel Piccoli, Jack Palance, Fritz Lang, Giorgia Moll; Length 101 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Sunday 20 August 2017 (and originally on VHS at home, Wellington, April 1998, and later on DVD at home, London, Wednesday 14 August 2013).

Criterion Sunday 140: 8½ (aka Otto e mezzo, 1963)

It’s not that I don’t appreciate what Fellini is aiming for here — portrait of the artist as a narcissist with mother issues, one of his abiding themes — it’s just that there’s so much whirl and spectacle that I find it difficult to keep up with why I should care about Marcello Mastroianni’s Guido and his many women (and memories of women, and fantasies of women). I’ve apparently seen this film before but I don’t remember it at all, not that I’m holding up this response as any kind of proof of anything. It’s undoubtedly a well-made film which does all those reflexive filmic things (he plays a film director) that critics love when compiling their all-time lists, and the cinematography by Gianni Di Venanzo is fantastic. I just struggle to find what’s in it that I can connect with. To each their own.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Federico Fellini; Writers Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli and Brunello Rondi; Cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo; Starring Marcello Mastroianni, Anouk Aimée, Sandra Milo; Length 138 minutes.

Seen at Rialto, Wellington, Tuesday 31 October 2000 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 15 January 2017).

لذت دیوانگی Lezate divanegi (Joy of Madness, 2004)

There’s nothing particularly polished about this documentary, a sort of extended making-of feature, but it shines in what it captures of the struggle Samira Makhmalbaf undertook to make her film At Five in the Afternoon (2003). It’s also made by Samira’s younger sister Hana (yet another woman making excellent films under the Makhmalbaf Film House banner), herself a teenager at the time, which makes it all the more fascinating. Basically, we see a series of scenes of Samira battling to convince local Afghan actors to take roles in her film (which is primarily about the setbacks in educating women after the Taliban have been ousted from the country). She tries to convince a mullah to drive a cart, and when he starts to feel foolish or inadequate to the task (presumably), she has to convince him not to renege on his word as a cleric. Then there’s her lead actor (Agheleh Rezaie), who takes quite some persuading of the film’s merit, as baseless rumours fly around of the production’s immorality, and that it will kill kids (not to mention require people to wake at four in the morning for several months). Still, we know from the existence of the finished feature (which is excellent) that Samira prevails — the documentary finishes before shooting begins — and we have this document to prove it’s possible for women to make thought-provoking and polished films even under intolerant regimes.

CREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Hana Makhmalbaf حنا مخملباف; Length 71 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 31 May 2017.

Their Finest (2016)

I hardly expected to like this. It looks like the kind of unadventurous, softly patriotic nonsense that leads to dull dirges like that Vera Brittain adaptation with Alicia Vikander in it whose title I’ve already forgotten (it’s Testament of Youth now that I look it up), or thin jaunts like that one with Bel Powley as Princess Margaret and a bunch of other less enjoyable people that I sort of half-remember the title of (A Royal Night Out, it turns out). Well anyway, I might actually remember the title of Their Finest because I generally found it to be superior, and though it’s hardly a film for the ages, it does have a spirited Gemma Arterton playing Catrin, a Welsh screenwriter, with a scene-stealing Bill Nighy as, um… Bill Nighy, I guess (he plays an actor). A love story is present (not with Nighy, I should point out), but it feels to me that this film is about more than the romance, even if there is a certain romanticism to the idea of wartime England. I was manipulated duly by the film, overlong as it was (and that despite an actual line in the film about movies ideally being an hour and a half long!), and I feel fine about it, for it was all very jolly.

Their Finest film posterCREDITS
Director Lone Scherfig; Writer Gaby Chiappe (based on the novel Their Finest Hour and a Half by Lissa Evans); Cinematographer Sebastian Blenkov; Starring Gemma Arterton, Bill Nighy, Sam Claflin; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Sunday 7 May 2017.

Criterion Sunday 118: Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

Of all Preston Sturges’ output — he had a glorious run in the 1940s, in particular — this is the film that tends to get most often featured as his pinnacle. And yet, and yet. I assume I’d be missing the point to say this is a film about an absurdly privileged paternalistic condescending white man, a film director no less, who learns a Truth about poor folk: that comedy films are what the people want and that he’s been wrong to speak down to his audience. I mean, as far as Lessons go, it’s a good one, but it does rather require sitting through a lot of Joel McCrea being a pampered, pompous cretin. After all, he’s been wanting to make a serious work of Art, a disquisition on the plight of Man: O Brother, Where Art Thou? (it was left to the Coen brothers many years later to imagine just how this director character might have fused drama and comedy). Of course, yes, Sullivan’s Travels is a commentary on the operation of class privilege, but yet there’s plenty in the film that still irks me (as just one example, that he showed no contrition whatsoever for assaulting a railway worker with a rock). The ending suggests Sturges’ intentions are good — and the scene in the church with the black pastor is beautifully moving — but as a comedy it has a streak of meanness to it that makes it a frustrating film for me at least. Veronica Lake as “the girl” (nice work with that name) doesn’t impress as a great actor on this outing, but I love her character’s attitude for much of the film, at least, and could have stood to see more of it. I don’t wish to dispute the film’s Great-ness overly, but it just impresses me less than Sturges’ other films upon rewatching.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Preston Sturges; Cinematographer John Seitz; Starring Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake; Length 90 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 4 September 2016 (and earlier on VHS at university, Wellington, March 1998).

Losing Ground (1982)

You sort of expect that all the best works of an era will be known and widely celebrated already, but then you see something which was once obscure that blows you away. This feature-length debut by Kathleen Collins (an academic and playwright who died a few years later) is said to be the first feature film by a Black woman in America, but despite that it’s very far from being some pioneeringly amateurish stab at filmmaking from a dilettante. Rather this is a deeply-felt, very carefully constructed film that shapes its narrative and characters in very particular ways, in which Collins makes full use of the cinematic means at her disposal. There’s drama in its story of a relationship between Sarah (Seret Scott), an intellectual professor of philosophy who is serious-minded and likes order in her life, and her husband Victor (Bill Gunn, himself a director of pioneering films like 1973’s Ganja & Hess), a loose, louche painter of abstracts with a ready smile and the desire to constantly move around. Yet there’s also plenty of comedy, not to mention a filmic tone that keeps pushing at the edges of both registers, never resolving any of its characters into stereotypes or boxes but allowing them many forms of expression. It’s remarkable too that this story of middle-class intelligentsia is exclusively made and performed by people of colour, but that may be the reason for its marginalisation since its initial release. Whatever the reasons for its obscurity, it’s a brilliant film with some fantastic performances that presents a really compelling and complex inner journey of one woman.

Losing Ground film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Kathleen Collins; Cinematographer Ronald K. Gray; Starring Seret Scott, Bill Gunn, Duane Jones; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Wednesday 25 May 2016.

The Neon Demon (2016)

There is no shortage of films that deal with the subject of the artificiality of Los Angeles (one of them even features this movie’s star Elle Fanning), or the nasty insidiousness attendant on the objectification of women within the creative industries (think Showgirls). And then there are films that go for a heightened atmosphere, with dialogue which would be almost risible were it not for the acting being pitched at such an icily aloof plateau, and the images being so artful and gorgeously composed that it all seems of a piece with the allegorical (perhaps Orphic) subject matter (frankly, Refn’s last film Only God Forgives went for that register too). Oh, and there are even horror films about vampiric sexuality (in a sense most vampire movies are about sex, though Claire Denis’s Trouble Every Day was sort of working in a similar place).

Needless to say, I was thinking about lots of films while watching The Neon Demon, because it’s very much a film about making films — photographers do not come out at all well here and that’s surely a directorial self-critique. However, it works too as a further development of the lushly misanthropic style of Refn’s previous film, married to a throbbing Cliff Martinez electronic score that only further emphasises the strangeness of the many liminal, blank spaces the film sets itself in. By the end, Jena Malone’s make-up artist Ruby has more or less taken over the film from Fanning’s ingenue model Jesse, a narrative shift the film marks with a sort of Crowley-like magickal ritual transference involving much neon and mirrors (the demon of the title, one presumes), but then much of the film works more at an allegorical level (even Malick’s Knight of Cups seems naturalistic compared to this). It’s unsettling, certainly, not least for what it says about Refn’s view of women’s relationships with one another (there’s a disturbing lesbian/necrophiliac theme to emphasise this), but then everyone in this world is a parasite (not least the characters briefly essayed by Keanu Reeves and Christina Hendricks), and all sexuality is violent, it seems to posit.

I’m almost willing to talk myself out of liking it but for the sustained atmosphere and excellent performances — if heightened hyperstylised camp is your thing that is.

The Neon Demon (2016)CREDITS
Director Nicolas Winding Refn; Writers Refn, Polly Stenham and Mary Laws; Cinematographer Natasha Braier; Starring Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at Soho Hotel, London, Wednesday 1 June 2016.