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.

The Nice Guys (2016)

There’s been a low-level hum of satisfaction around the critical community when it comes to Shane Black’s latest directorial effort, perhaps a reaction to his return to a recognisable world after the superhero excesses of Iron Man Three, or perhaps because, well, his two lead characters played by Ryan Gosling (as squeamish PI Holland March) and Russell Crowe (as enforcer Jackson Healy) are kinda nice guys. Deep down, that is, because of course both have jobs that involve them in some sordid work, not least Crowe’s character Jackson, who is the tough guy sent round to break noses when payments aren’t made or respect isn’t given. That said, I’m not always convinced the film is itself particularly nice, though it’s at least a mark of upfront candour about your sexual politics to start with the image of a murdered and bloody, naked p0rn star splayed out centerfold-style as a teenage boy’s (literal) fantasy image. The film is set in 1977 so of course there’s a lot of that’s-how-things-were-back-then type set-ups, and for me a lot of them leave a bad taste in the mouth, as if the filmmakers are aware of the gross misogyny but just sort of think it’s fine if one of the lead characters is a woman — well, a 13-year-old girl (Holland’s daughter Holly, played by wide-eyed Anna Chlumsky-alike Angourie Rice), who has to witness some pretty nasty stuff, but also gets to boss around the men. It’s got some good writing and definitely a likeable swagger to its leads — and in the case of Russell Crowe, that’s a rare enough thing these days — but Black, like his film, came of age writing in the 1980s and a lot of that retrogressive spirit shines through pretty clearly.

The Nice Guys film posterCREDITS
Director Shane Black; Writers Black and Anthony Bagarozzi; Cinematographer Philippe Rousselot; Starring Ryan Gosling, Russell Crowe, Angourie Rice; Length 116 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Thursday 9 May 2016.

Mississippi Grind (2015)

Searching for images from the film to put at the top of my review, there’s a lot of the two stars Ryan Reynolds and Ben Mendelsohn at the craps table, or playing poker, and it’s true these images have a hint of glamour to them. But that’s not what I think of when I think about Mississippi Grind. It’s a film that lives more in the moments at the bar after the game, as these two sup on a bourbon, get drunk and fantasise about what could be. Because, yes, this is indeed another movie about the faded lustre on the American Dream, which channels a story that touches on the peculiar way that class manifests itself in America via money, the pursuit of it, and more often the lack of it, the difficulty in getting it, and how not having it can ruin your life.

The gambling plays its part in this allegory, but is not depicted as inevitably doomed (though of course that does colour the tension going into a lot of the scenes), but rather as having its ups and downs, as indeed it does in life. And these two guys have their personal ups and downs as they travel the byways of the American heartland, down the Mississippi River and a series of small, faded American gambling towns. For Mendelsohn’s Gerry, you get a sense of a lot more downs, but part of the film is in teasing out exactly what’s behind Reynolds’s mysterious Curtis, who shows up at Gerry’s poker table at the start and is quickly seized on by him as a sort of lucky mascot, into which fantasy Curtis is happy to play for a while. As a marker of his aspirations is his insistence on drinking Woodford Reserve bourbon, both a product placement and something that plays a role in defining their relative paths. Narratively, though, this isn’t tight in the sense we’ve come to expect from US cinema, but has a meandering looseness that harks back to an earlier era (I’ve seen the 1970s mentioned a lot by critics, and that seems fair).

The charm of the film — in a quote that’s recited by the characters a few times — is that it’s about the journey, and in that sense it has a lot of false endings: in a way you can choose whether these guys are successes at life, or losers, and you get the sense that it will continue to go either way for them if they keep at the gambling. But for a couple of hours, it’s an enjoyable amble through some of the less lustrous landmarks of the American Dream at its most capricious.

Mississippi Grind film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck; Cinematographer Andrij Parekh; Starring Ben Mendelsohn, Ryan Reynolds; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Monday 26 October 2015.

The Heat (2013)

I still think there’s a lot to appreciate about this film, and a lot of reason not to write it off from the outset. For a start, it’s from the director of Bridesmaids (2011), a very likeable comedy that was generous to its largely female cast, and the TV show Freaks and Geeks, which was unjudgemental about high school cliques and launched the careers of many of today’s comedy stars. The writer worked on Parks and Recreation, one of my very favourite TV comedies of recent memory, and it stars a number of alumni of the often very funny Saturday Night Live (including the wonderful Jane Curtin in a small role). And I remain very happy with the idea of taking a genre as hackneyed as the buddy cop film and giving it a gendered twist. In fact, I rather enjoyed the trailer to be honest, so I thought it might be worth a couple of hours of my time. It’s just that, as a finished film, it feels stale and underwhelming and lacks real laughs.

It trades in the most reductive stereotypes for a start, though I appreciate that’s not exactly a huge criticism for a comedy, and yet some tiny helping of subtlety wouldn’t go amiss. As Boston cop Mullins, Melissa McCarthy is just relentlessly full of physical abuse and pushiness, while Sandra Bullock’s Special Agent Ashburn is prudish and smugly supercilious. That these two diametrically opposed characters should have to work together is surely chapter 1 in Writing a Buddy Cop Film for Dummies, but even that text might suggest leavening the good cop/bad cop roleplaying with something a little bit sympathetic and human to these portraits. Sure, there’s a bit of backstory to explain away their respective behaviours (this is where the always-excellent Curtin comes in), but it’s tediously predictable.

And that’s the thing: the laughs just aren’t there. Sure, there are some, but it’s not sustained, and it doesn’t come from anything that feels like real understanding of these characters as humans, just as excuses for them to do ‘things which are funny’. They get drunk together and dance at a dive bar, but without any apparent spontaneity or fun; they aggressively trade insults, but it’s just to illustrate their different characters; they hang a drug dealer off a building to get information from him, but then drop him by mistake, and I just don’t know what that’s supposed to be (empowering? funny?). A lot of the comedy in fact seems to be solely in the idea of putting women in the place of the genre’s more familiar boorish, lawless men, but it needs more of a twist than that.

There’s a lot of plot too — something about taking down a notorious drug lord — and it feels as if it’s lifted wholesale from another chapter of the genre textbook. It’s not like the intricacies of this are particularly important to the film, but when the plot is quite so forgettable, it makes the jokes that hang off it easy to forget too. Added to this that the film is presented in a grungy neo-70s style, complete with vintage funk music soundtrack, and it doesn’t feel particularly fresh on the whole (even the 2004 Starsky and Hutch managed to feel more up-to-date, but perhaps the mid-2000s were a high-water mark for American comedy).

In truth, I wanted to like this film, still do want to like this film, but I feel let down. The potential was there, it just lost focus in the execution. Which is, after all, probably something I should have been clued into, given the hilariously bad airbrushing of McCarthy on the UK poster (the image with this review is of the US poster). ‘It could have been worse’ isn’t really a recommendation, but I remain in hope for future film collaborations by Feig and co.

The Heat film posterCREDITS
Director Paul Feig; Writer Katie Dippold; Cinematographer Robert Yeoman; Starring Melissa McCarthy, Sandra Bullock; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Fulham Road, London, Tuesday 23 July 2013.