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.

Criterion Sunday 200: The Honeymoon Killers (1970)

This seems an intriguing film in many ways, because it’s taking that evergreen trope of lurid Americana — the serial killers — and stripping it of any of the glamour usually afforded them in cinema. It doesn’t make either particularly attractive and it doesn’t beautify their crimes, as the film grimly moves its story on from initial meeting to murderousness in slow stages of development, she no less instrumental than him in driving them to their end. Its black-and-white graininess and low-budget quality effectively recalls Sam Fuller’s 50s pseudo-exploitation flicks, those true-crime ripped-from-the-headlines type of films which could run as a B-movie in a grindhouse.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Leonard Kastle; Cinematographer Oliver Wood; Starring Shirley Stoler, Tony Lo Bianco; Length 107 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 25 February 2018.

The Voices (2014)

This is a very strange film, but watching it I am reminded of Compliance. In many ways The Voices is totally unlike that film — for a start, it’s pitched as a black comedy set in a small town with a hyper-stylised saturated colour aesthetic — but that’s the film I find myself thinking about (and not just because I confused Jacki Weaver and Ann Dowd playing similar authority roles in each). In both cases, I feel like the filmmakers are trying to make serious points about alienation and modern society, but in both my personal reaction has been closer to one of revulsion at a level of exploitation of delicate issues (however intentionally and meaningfully these might be deployed). Here, we have Jerry (Ryan Reynolds), a workman in a bathroom factory, who hears voices and is seeing Dr Warren (Weaver) to deal with these issues. The voices manifest in the form of his (sweary Scottish) cat and (affectionate drawling) dog, and that domestic madness aspect of the film is indeed very funny. It’s just that the film starts to walk a very fine balancing line between psychological drama and stylised black comedy when it shows him killing off the secretarial staff at his factory (among whom number a feisty Gemma Arterton as Fiona, and a winsome Anna Kendrick as Lisa). I suppose different viewers will have their own take on this — there are quite a few fairly positive reviews out there — but my own is that it is a misjudgement, and that the film’s tone (its horror-comedy balance) goes seriously awry, especially with the first murder and subsequent dismembering of Fiona. The thing is, there’s a delightful, luridly coloured and light-hearted dance sequence in the end credits featuring all the film’s by-this-point dead characters (I shan’t say which ones here), and I just wish the rest of the film had been closer to the tone of that.

The Voices film posterCREDITS
Director Marjane Satrapi مرجان ساتراپی; Writer Michael R. Perry; Cinematographer Maxime Alexandre; Starring Ryan Reynolds, Gemma Arterton, Anna Kendrick, Jacki Weaver; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wandsworth, London, Saturday 21 March 2015.

Criterion Sunday 13: The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

As a winner of all five major Academy Awards (film, director, actor, actress and screenplay), this film has a fairly solid reputation, although I’d argue that this kind of lionisation by the Oscars doesn’t amount to all that much, given how wide of the mark they so often are. But certainly, The Silence of the Lambs is a very tautly made psychological thriller with fairly straightforward horror elements in the way its antagonist, a mysterious figure known for most of the film only as Buffalo Bill, carries out his murderous work. His crimes are being investigated by rookie FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), who on the suggestion of her boss (Scott Glenn, always reliably on hand to play bureaucratic heavyweights) interviews the incarcerated serial killer Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). I imagine most of this is fairly well known now already, and certainly the tête-àtête scenes between Starling and Lecter remain fairly intense, as director Jonathan Demme keeps the camera in close on their faces throughout. The performances too are well-awarded, as Hopkins manages somehow to stay just the right side of camp in the leering delight he takes in all the nasty sordid little details of the crimes, while Foster is upright and believable as a fresh-faced recruit. In fact, much of her role is to be a lone woman in the very male-dominated world of law enforcement, scrutinised far more closely than her colleagues as she goes about her work, and the procedural details the film allows her character are partly so that she can be framed and followed by the eyes of the men around her. That said, there’s an uncomfortable element to both the crimes (all against women of a certain size) and to the depiction of their killer, with the story showing a fascination in his cross-dressing which could easily be construed as transphobic, although details are taken from cases of real serial killers. Whatever its weaknesses, the resulting film is still a fine display of filmmaking craft which manages after 20 years to hold up rather well (hairstyles and fashions amongst law enforcement characters remaining fairly restrained, after all) and which will no doubt continue to exert an eery fascination for future generations.

Criterion Extras: The extras on the disc include storyboard comparisons, text from the FBI manual detailing some grisly case studies of serial killers, some lengthy deleted and extended scenes (all nicely contextualised within the film by introductions), and a commentary. This last features the lead actors and creative personnel as well as an FBI agent and is carefully edited and marshalled. It’s largely interesting, though the FBI agent doesn’t have much time for liberal handwringing about capital punishment. Another side effect of listening to a commentary is that the images come into greater focus shorn of the soundtrack, and you really notice the way Demme so frequently frames the faces frontally in dialogue scenes. The cinematography by Tak Fujimoto is also really excellent, with good use of light and dark and almost a softness to the palette. (NB There’s been a new Blu-ray release of this film since the review above was written, so the extras may differ.)


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jonathan Demme; Writer Ted Tally (based on the novel by Thomas Harris); Cinematographer Tak Fujimoto; Starring Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn; Length 118 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 7 December 2014 (as well as years before in Wellington).

Stoker (2013)

I like strong visual directors, I cannot deny that, but I’m not as massive a fanboy of this director as perhaps some critics are. Park is still best known for the stylish and violent Korean film Oldboy (2003), part of his ‘Vengeance’ trilogy, but perhaps this film will change that. Stoker too is undeniably stylish, and stylised. The look of the film — the costumes, the decor, the hairstyles — is firmly set in the past, a version of the 1950s it seems, despite the occasional appearances of modern technology. This is fitting for a story about a family which is stuck in a violent past, apparently doomed to repeat it.

The performances too are stylised; I think all the actors hit the right tone and do a great job at it. If I have an issue with this film, it’s that it strains really hard (heightened sound effects and colours, chilly modernist music, briefly glimpsed flashbacks) to create a brooding atmosphere filled with myriad possibilities that it can never really deliver on. I was convinced at one point that the mood was building to a pay-off whereby the heroine would kill people using only her mind (she doesn’t). In fact there are plenty of supernatural signifies at play here, so you could be forgiven thinking it’s going to go down that route. Also, despite the implications of the title (which for me points to the author of Dracula), there are no vampires. (Sorry about that, if you consider that a spoiler.)

But as a stylish atmosphere piece, it delivers very well.

Stoker film posterCREDITS
Director Park Chan-wook 박찬욱; Writer Wentworth Miller; Cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon 정정훈; Starring Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman, Matthew Goode; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Tuesday 5 March 2013.