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.

Night Moves (2013)

I feel like I’ve been using terms like “watchful” a lot about films I’ve seen recently, as if there’s a lot more filmmakers making observant little stories about people which are suffused with a sort of quiet observancy as they go about their lives, and Kelly Reichardt’s films more than most have this quality. Her earlier features, Old Joy (2006) and Wendy and Lucy (2008) are filled with this kind of tense tranquillity, and I particularly loved Meek’s Cutoff (2010) for its story of a group of women in 19th century Oregon picking their way slowly across country. This new film too is set in Oregon and has all of the same qualities, a slow-burn story of a group of friends splitting apart.

It’s very much a film of two parts. The first half has all the tense forward momentum of a heist film, as a group of environmental activists (or eco-terrorists, if you will) plot to blow up a dam. Even though their actions are destructive, the film puts you right there amongst them, and you find yourself almost willing them to get away with it and achieve their optimistic goals, for each wants to spur the world towards being more environmentally-conscious. At the heart of the film is Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), who has a good job working for a collective organic farm, and who seems to be close to Dena (Dakota Fanning), a young woman working at a health spa, whose wealthier background allows the plan to move forward. They are aiding the shadowy Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), whose plan this appears to be, and who lives ‘off the grid’ out in the wooded wilds of upstate Oregon.

However, this is only half the film, and there’s an abrupt change of pace once the plan has been put into effect, as the three deal with their consciences with regards to its outcome. This is where the relationship between Josh and Dena becomes particularly fractured, and in which Josh reveals all his nervy paranoia. It’s also where the payoff to the minutely detailed ‘heist’ of the first half follows through, as Night Moves reveals itself to be a film that’s about the psychology of terrorist action, bringing home with these three middle-class white characters how a well-meaning intention can become warped and distorted. The film tracks Josh as he becomes progressively disenchanted with his ideals and is ironically pushed by his destructive actions towards the very capitalist society to which he had initially seemed so opposed.

The acting is all excellent, of course, and if Eisenberg seems to be doing a version of his familiar sullen loner, substituting quiet tenseness for his usual nervy chatter, it’s a character very nicely detailed. Fanning too extends a run of strong performances with her conflicted Dena, who has in some ways the most difficult part, revealing all the vulnerabilities that lie behind Dena’s very strong and motivated facade (never clearer than in the sequence where she must purchase a large quantity of fertiliser for the bomb without having any ID on her).

The very strong and brilliantly orchestrated first half is the highlight while the film is running, but the second half opens up questions which linger for some time afterwards, extending and deepening the mystery of the film’s surface. As the title suggests (ostensibly taken from the name of the speedboat they buy, which forms part of the group’s plan), there is a tense, dark atmosphere suffusing the film, and there’s certainly a quality to the cinematography and the settings, all earthy and overcast, which harks back to tense psychological thrillers of decades earlier. In all, Reichardt has crafted a film that takes an aspect of modern society and gives it the timeless resonance of a morality play.

Night Moves film posterCREDITS
Director Kelly Reichardt; Writers Jonathan Raymond and Reichardt; Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt; Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Thursday 17 October 2013.