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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The Big Short (2015)

Whatever else came from the Wall Street crash of 2008, it’s certainly been the impetus for plenty of films since then, going right back to my first entry on this blog, Arbitrage (2012), not to mention the following year’s The Wolf of Wall Street — though those are less specifically about 2008, as about the broken culture of high finance. The Big Short certainly gets that culture across well, while digging deeper into the specifics of sub-prime mortages, collateralised debt obligations (CDOs) and the other jargon and terminology, framing it in an easily-digestible way for viewers whose understanding of such matters is fairly shaky (i.e. most of them, presumably). What this means in practice is jittery camerawork with lots of racking of focus and quick zooms, along with the interpolation of awkward cameos purporting to explain the more abstruse concepts, hosted by such figures as Selena Gomez at a gambling table and Margot Robbie (harking back to Wolf again) in a bathtub. The problem is that all of these tropes are largely distracting, while the bulk of the narrative prefers to focus on a few quirky characters whose stories are presumably more interesting, though it’s not clear to me that they were really central to the crisis (basically they’re traders who made a buck from everyone else’s misfortune). So there’s Christian Bale’s doctor with Aspberger’s, a Cassandra-like figure largely separate from the rest of the cast; there’s Steve Carell’s fund manager and his staff; there’s Ryan Gosling’s shark-like trader; and there’s the small garage-based midwestern startup led by John Magaro, who enlist the help of former Wall Street highflyer-turned-environmentalist Brad Pitt. Needless to say, the acting talents on screen — not to mention the comedy chops of director/writer Adam McKay — ensure that the film is never boring. I’m just not certain that this film filled with shouty men in suits is ever very much more than just a snappily entertaining, fitfully amusing digression.

The Big Short film posterCREDITS
Director Adam McKay; Writers McKay and Charles Randolph (based on the book by Michael Lewis); Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd; Starring Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, John Magaro, Brad Pitt; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Friday 29 January 2016.

By the Sea (2015)

There’s something delightfully old-fashioned about this new film by Angelina Jolie (styling herself “Jolie Pitt” in the credits), set in the 1970s and to all purposes a throwback to that era — if not an earlier one indeed (hints of Michelangelo Antonioni perhaps, albeit without that director’s rigorously architectural framing). Needless to say, viewers familiar with the couple’s pairing in Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005) will probably be taken aback here, as this is unapologetically an ennui-laden erotic thriller, where any eroticism is deeply tied up with voyeurism, not to mention a traumatic event which remains only hinted at for much of the film. The Pitts play a childless couple of 14 years, Vanessa and Roland, who have travelled to a small French seaside town for the summer. Their neighbours in the comfortably-appointed hotel are a newly-married couple on their honeymoon, Léa and François (Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud). Thus begins a drama of erotic transference in which demons are unearthed, though at a glacial pace weighed down by long, pregnant pauses and periods of relative inactivity — Vanessa is a former dancer who mostly prefers to hide from the world (often under oversized hats), while Roland is a writer who mostly spends his time in the local cafe, drinking and chatting to proprietor Michel (Niels Arestrup). Jolie Pitt gives a steely performance, all the better given her character is so closed off from both the world and even her husband. For me it’s Brad Pitt who’s the weak link here (though he’s a fine actor), and though it seems like this must be quite a personal film, the casting also gives the sense of a vanity project. Needless to say, I think Jolie has crafted something really out of step with the rest of American film culture, and it’s all the more welcome for that.

By the Sea film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Angelina Jolie [as “Angelina Jolie Pitt”]; Cinematographer Christian Berger; Starring Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Mélanie Laurent, Melvil Poupaud, Niels Arestrup; Length 122 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Tuesday 15 December 2015.

The Counselor (aka The Counsellor, 2013)

Oh dear, where do I start? I went into this film — whose showing was conveniently aligned with a two-hour gap in my schedule, rather than because I specifically sought it out — with low expectations, to which the film was more than equal. I’ve read and enjoyed novels by Cormac McCarthy in the past, as I have watched and enjoyed films by Ridley Scott, though both are known for a certain pared-down muscularity to their work. It’s not simply that I did not connect with this product of their collaboration, because in many respects I admired the filmmaking on show, as found it to be actively offensive.

For a start, I’d call it misogynistic — and when a female character quite literally ends up dumped on a garbage tip, I don’t really know how it can be otherwise — but perhaps gynophobic would be more accurate to its creators’ intentions. Women are arch-manipulators of the men in the story, and it’s Cameron Diaz’s character Malkina who’s at the heart of this theme, using both her animal wiliness (she has a leopard-print design tattooed down her back) and her sexuality to control those around her. Even the suggestion of lesbianism is given in the context of the domination and control of a man. Perhaps a memorable scene on the windscreen of her boyfriend Reiner (Javier Bardem)’s car was going for the kind of self-conscious trashiness of the kind seen in say The Paperboy, but on screen it just comes across as bizarre and a bit hateful. Poor Penélope Cruz doesn’t really stand a chance then as the title character’s fiancée, and gets short shrift in the movie.

The focus then is on Michael Fassbender’s unnamed (legal) counsel to the flamboyant Reiner, with Bardem here, bedecked in colourful shirts and vertiginous hair, making a mid-career bid to become the next Nic Cage it seems. The setting is a textbook Mexican-border lawless Hell-on-Earth racist fantasia of the type that should seem pretty familiar to filmgoers by now, and it’s unsurprising that Fassbender’s Counselor gets in over his head in some shady drug dealings that go violently awry. Fassbender himself has little more to do than rush back and forth fretfully, reacting to what he’s told and what he sees, though he does this perfectly ably. As an actor, his face always seems to conceal a certain hardness of spirit, but here his character quickly sheds any semblance of this, testament perhaps to his chameleon-like acting talent.

If the acting is adequate and Ridley Scott’s visualisation of the story is competent, it’s in McCarthy’s script that much of the film’s weakness lies for me. Characters talk in laconically gnomic phrases suggesting emotional depths but more often laughably banal, at times pushed to ridiculous extremes (Bruno Ganz’s diamond merchant and Rubén Blades’s floridly eloquent gangster boss are particularly grating in this regard). Early on, there’s a lengthy description of a particularly gruesome decapitating contraption whose measured implacability comes to be a metaphor for the way the narrative itself operates over the second half of the film (though unsurprisingly it makes a literal appearance later on) — events unfold with nasty inevitability, and there’s little hope of redemption for anyone.

What we’re left with in The Counselor, then, is a bleak and nasty story of equal-parts calculating and helpless women, trapped men and violent Mexicans. Maybe I’m entirely missing the point and this in fact is Scott’s late-period masterpiece, but I doubt it. The characters are granted no reprieve, and nor is the audience.

The Counsellor film posterCREDITS
Director Ridley Scott; Writer Cormac McCarthy; Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski; Starring Michael Fassbender, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Penélope Cruz; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Tuesday 3 December 2013.

World War Z (2013)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director Marc Forster | Writers Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, Damon Lindelof and J. Michael Straczynski (based on the novel by Max Brooks) | Cinematographer Ben Seresin | Starring Brad Pitt, Daniella Kertesz, Mireille Enos | Length 116 minutes | Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue [3D], London, Wednesday 3 July 2013 || My Rating 3 stars good


© Paramount Pictures

It’s fair to say I went into this without high hopes. I was aware of some of the fraught production history, though primarily from having read a few reviews beforehand. Yet I like Brad Pitt as an actor, and in the end really enjoyed this tense and gripping thriller about a zombie apocalypse.

It has limitations obviously. For a start, it’s probably best to think of it as a film about a catastrophic viral outbreak, with the zombies being a sort of convenient writers’ short-hand for something Very Bad that is nevertheless Obviously Fictional. I don’t think these zombies share much in common with other cinematic and fictional zombies: they’re in essence just monsters (quick, lethal, dangerous). As an outbreak that needs to be contained, the hopes of (yes) all humanity are basically on the shoulders of Brad Pitt’s former UN investigator Gerry, whose singular ability to spot the zombies’ weaknesses is surely only explicable because the numbers of intelligent people have been so depleted — mostly it’s just military types remaining, with the odd civilian like Gerry who’s been whisked to the safety of a convoy of ships in the Atlantic.

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