Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood (2019)

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Nobody knows the fuck who I am any more. In Los Angeles 1969 fading TV cowboy Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is offered a job on an Italian western by agent Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) while his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) assists him in every area of his life including driving him after he’s lost his licence for DUI and gofering around home on Cielo Drive where Rick occupies the gate house next to the rental where Roman Polanski (Rafal Zuwierucha) and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) have moved in. One day at Burbank Cliff picks up a hippie hitch hiker Pussycat (Margot Qualley) who wants a ride out to the Spahn Movie Ranch where he used to work and it appears owner George Spahn (Bruce Dern) is being held hostage by a bunch of scary hippies led by an absent guy called Charlie and personally attended to by Squeaky Fromme (Dakota Fanning). Cliff tees off the hippies by punishing one of their number for slicing a whitewall tyre on Rick’s car. Meanwhile, Rick confronts his acting demons doing yet another guest villain on a TV episode with Sam Wanamaker (Nicholas Hammond) and considers spending 6 months in Italy, after which the guys return in August 1969 while next door a heavily pregnant Tate suffers the hottest night of the year and the Spahn Ranch hippies are checking out the residents on Cielo Drive … When you come to the end of the line, with a buddy who is more than a brother and a little less than a wife, getting blind drunk together is really the only way to say farewell. How much did you want to see this? And talk about repaying fan faith. What a huge ensemble cast, to start with, and with so many pleasant surprises:  Bruce Dern as George Spahn, the owner of the fabled ranch where Manson holed up;  Clu Gulager (!) as a bookseller (with a Maltese Falcon on his counter); Rumer Willis as actress Joanna Pettet; Michael Madsen (remember him?) as the Sheriff on the Bounty Law TV show; Kurt Russell as a TV director (and more besides) with Zoë Bell as his kick-ass wife; and Luke Perry in his last role; and so many more, a ridiculous spread of talent that emphasises the story’s epic nature. It’s a pint-size take on Tarantino’s feelings about the decline of Hollywood, a hallucinatory haunted house of nostalgia, an incision into that frenzied moment in August 1969 that symbolically sheared open the viscera lying close to that fabled town’s surface. It’s about movies and mythology and TV shows and music and what it’s like to spend half your day driving around LA and hearing all the new hit songs on the radio. It’s about business meetings at Musso & Frank’s (I recommend the scallops); and appointment TV; and it’s about acting:  one of the best sequences is when Rick is guest-starring opposite an eight-year old Method actress (Julia Butters) who doesn’t eat lunch because it makes her sluggish and she expounds on her preference at being called an Actor and talks him into giving a great performance. All of which is a sock in the jaw to critics about Tarantino’s treatment of women, even if there’s an array of gorgeously costumed pulchritude here, much of which deservedly gets a dose of his proverbial violence (directed by and towards, with justification), among a selection of his trademark tropes. It’s likely about Burt Reynolds’ friendship with stuntman turned director Hal Needham or that of Steve McQueen (played here by Damian Lewis, I can even forgive that) and James ‘Bud’ Ekins. It’s about an anachronistic TV actor whose star has crested but who wants to upgrade to movies after a couple of outings – and there’s an amazing sequence about The Great Escape and what might have been and actors called George. But it’s more than that. It’s about a town dedicated to formulating and recalibrating itself for the times and it’s about the joys of moviegoing. Watching Robbie watch herself (actually the real Sharon) on screen is so delightful. She’s a little-known starlet and her joy at her own role in The Wrecking Crew is confirmed by the audience’s laughter when she wins a fight scene. Robbie is totally charismatic in a role that has scant dialogue but she fills the film with her presence: a beautiful woman kicks her shoes off and enjoys watching herself – take that! The detail is stunning, the production design by Barbara Klinger just awe-inspiring. This is a film that’s made on film and cut on film (Super 8, 16, 35) and intended for the cinema. It’s shot by Robert Richardson and it looks simply jaw-dropping. It’s about friendship and loyalty and DiCaprio is very good as a kind of buttery hard-drinking self-doubting star; his co-dependent buddy Pitt is even better (it’s probably Pitt’s greatest performance) as the guy with a lethal legend attached to his name (maybe he did, maybe he didn’t) who doesn’t do much stunt work any more and some people don’t like his scene with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on The Green Hornet but it’s laugh out loud hilarious. This is leisurely, exhilarating, chilling, kind and wise and funny and veering towards tragedy. It’s a fantasy, a what-might-have-been and what we wish had been and the twist ending left me with feelings of profound sorrow.  As we approach the end of another decade it seems a very long fifty years since Easy Rider formulated the carefully curated soundtrack that Tarantino has made one of his major signifiers, and it’s exactly fifty years since Sharon Tate and her unborn son and her friends were slaughtered mercilessly by the Manson Family. People started locking their doors when they realised what the Summer of Love had rained down, and not just in Hollywood. Tarantino is the single most important filmmaker of my adult life and this is his statement about being a cinéphile, a movie-lover, a nerd, a geek, a fan, and it’s about death – the death of optimism, the death of cinema, the death of Hollywood. It’s also about second chances and being in the right place at the right time. Just as Tarantino reclaimed actors and genres and trash and presented them back to Generation X as our beloved childhood trophies, Rick’s fans remember he was once the watercooler TV cowboy and give him back his mojo. This film is where reality crosses over with the movies and the outcome is murderous. The scene at the Spahn Ranch is straight from Hitchcock’s Psycho playbook.  Practically Chekhovian in structure, this reminds us that if there’s a flamethrower in the first act, it must go off in the third. Tarantino is telling us that this is what movies can be. It could only be better if it were a musical, but, hey, it practically is. I thought I’d been waiting for this film for a year, truth is I’d been waiting for it half my life. Everybody don’t need a stuntman

The Bookshop (2017)

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Dear Mr. Thornton, a good book is the precious distillation of a master’s spirit, embalmed and preserved for the purpose of achieving a life beyond life, which is why it is undoubtedly a necessary commodity. East Anglia, 1959. Young widow Florence Green (Emily Mortimer) risks everything to move into an abandoned building and open up a bookshop – the first such shop in the sleepy seaside town of Hardborough.  This soon brings her fierce enemies: she invites the hostility of the town’s less prosperous shopkeepers and also crosses Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson) the town’s vengeful, embittered alpha female and doyenne of the local scene and earmarked The Old House (as it becomes known) as an arts centre. Only Mr Brundish (Bill Nighy) a reclusive bibiliophile who develops an interest in the novels of Ray Bradbury seems sympathetic to Florence’s business… In the case of biographies, it’s better, I find, if they’re about good people, whereas novels are much more interesting if they are about nasty people. Whatever delicacy or nuance Penelope Fitzgerald’s source novel (a Booker nominee) may possess is simply flattened here by an almost inert style-free interpretation from writer/director Isabel Coixet, inept barely-there directing and some terrible miscasting in a setting that doesn’t look remotely like Norfolk or Suffolk because it’s not, it’s County Down in Northern Ireland and that’s not all that’s wrong with the production design. Mortimer is heroically trying to save a poor choice of material directed with no sense of momentum or invention and the distracting narration (by Julie Christie) is utilised to strike some interest in the premise which would otherwise be almost impenetrable. Nighy has little to do except walk about looking grumpy and Reg Wilson as Clarkson’s retired General husband looks utterly incompetent far beyond the demands of his dim character. James Lance has a good role as the poisonous shop assistant toff but his serpentine ways make the outcome all too predictable; Honor Kneafsey as little Christine the girl who becomes a book lover and gives the story a decent payoff is quite effective as a plot device to explain the narration and bring it up to date. What is good but hardly well dramatised is the way every level of a community moves against a single woman and conspires to totally destroy her utterly unapologetically. A failure but a small one since so few people will have seen it and those who have will have experienced the utter misery of the protagonist for every single second of this film in a rotten adaptation that literally never gets started. How right she was when she said that no one ever feels alone in a bookshop

The Equalizer 2 (2018)

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A piece of advice: always be nice to anyone who has access to your toothbrush.  Retired elusive ex-CIA operative, widower Robert McCall (Denzel Washington), is whiling away his time driving a taxi and delivering vigilante justice on behalf of neighbours and customers in Boston. However his past cuts close to home when thugs kill Susan Plummer (Melissa Leo) – his best friend and former colleague. Now out for revenge, McCall has to take on a crew of highly trained assassins who’ll stop at nothing to destroy him and he suspects their leader is a former colleague…  There are no good or bad people any more. No enemies. Just unfortunates. Per the law of diminishing returns, the more of these actioners Washington makes the less effective he becomes as a leading man, doesn’t he? In the first of these films, adapted from the Edward Woodward TV series, he was outshone by the astonishing Marton Csokas, who was the villain par excellence, albeit for obvious reasons he’s not back here. McCall is still working out his grief by helping out anyone he can like some kind of Fury or ninja empath. You’ll spot the troublemaker a mile off and the final shootout is inevitable and tedious. Director Antoine Fuqua has now made sadism a part of his aesthetic brand without any especially redeeming features other than the resolution of an underdeveloped subplot – care home resident Orson Bean trying to find a painting stolen from his family by the Nazis, a line of narrative mirrored in the aspiring artist who McCall is trying to direct back to the straight and narrow starting with remaking a piece of Islamic street art. Written by Richard Wenk. You died

Gumshoe (1971)

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Don’t be embarrassed when we’re out together – I could walk behind you.  Eddie Ginley (Albert Finney) works at a bingo hall in Liverpool, England, but dreams of becoming a stylish private investigator like those he has read about and seen in films – he’s entranced by Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon. After finally placing an advertisement in a local newspaper announcing his detective services, he receives a mysterious offer from a fat man who sends him a brown paper package containing a gun and he asks him to find a girl called Alison (Carolyn Seymour). His usually estranged brother William (Frank Finlay) offers him money to stop his investigation. He hangs out with his nice sister-in-law Ellen (Billie Whitelaw) but when he’s approached by the mysterious American Mrs Blankerson (Janice Rule) he’s soon in over his head. Even though Eddie is inexperienced and clueless at certain aspects of investigating he realises that he is entangled in a serious case involving drugs, murder and his own family… I sometimes hit below the belt.  Co-produced by Finney with Michael Medwin, this is an oddly charming piece of work, an homage to Dashiell Hammett’s private eye in the North of England with a man trying desperately to be Bogie in a trenchcoat but actually working in a Manchester bingo hall. The initially discomfiting narration in Eddie’s real voice is soon forgotten, aided immeasurably by a decent cast, a good level of mystery and a superbly witty score by Andrew Lloyd Webber whose flair and flourishes are laugh out loud enjoyable (he would re-use some of it for Sunset Boulevard). Finney makes a very game PI, a fish out of water in this dullsville backwater where the biggest crooks are members of his own family hoodwinking the poor putz.  Writer and actor Neville Smith adapted his own novel and it was directed by Stephen Frears, making his debut and the nicely lit location photography is by Chris Menges, sometimes shooting in a Liverpool no longer there.   Keep your guard up, don’t lead with your chin, and keep throwing out those lefts

Fame is the Spur (1947)

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Did God ordain it, this contrast between sweat and ease, between want and luxury, or is it the product of man’s will, of greed of selfishness?  In the late nineteenth century in the English North Country, young Hamer Radshaw (Michael Redgrave) commits to help the poverty stricken workers in his area.  He takes as his Excalibur a sword passed down to him by his grandfather from the Battle of Peterloo, where it had been used against workers. As an idealistic champion of the oppressed, he rises to power as a Labour MP but is seduced by the trappings of power and finds himself the type of politician he originally despised, his liberal leanings compromised as he becomes more and more conservative to his wife Ann’s (Rosamund John) disgust … Nigel Balchin adapted Howard Spring’s 1940 novel and it’s superbly directed by Roy Boulting (and produced by his brother John), a vivid depiction of a politician who rises from poverty through sponsorship to become one of Britain’s leaders up to and after World War One. It’s widely assumed to be a take on Ramsay Macdonald and Redgrave inhabits him wonderfully, but he is matched all the way by Rosamund John, who goes to prison for her suffragist beliefs.  Her hunger strike triggers her early death, leaving her corrupted husband to bemoan his choices and the deviation from his original spur to action. A bristling, busy story that must have had huge resonance for post-WW2 British audiences:  the violence used by the police against protesters still has the power to shock. There are wonderful stylistic flourishes and transitions that make this a lesson in visual storytelling. Quite the surprise package, leaving an indelible impression. Even among a very impressive cast that includes Carla Lehmann (in her final screen performance), Bernard Miles and Hugh Burden, Redgrave is simply rivetting as the principled man who rises from obscure origins to lead his country and loses everything decent and liberal about himself on the way to the top where it is very lonely indeed. Power corrupts…

When Harry Met Sally (1989)

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I want to propose a toast to Harry and Sally. If Marie or I had been remotely attracted to either of them we wouldn’t be here today.  In 1977, college graduates Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) and Sally Albright (Meg Ryan) share an acrimonious car ride from the University of Chicago to New York, during which they argue about whether men and women can ever truly be strictly platonic friends. Five years later they run into each other as they’re making their way in the world. They so dislike each other they don’t even acknowledge that they know each other. Five years after that, Harry and Sally meet again at a bookstore, and in the company of their respective best friends, Jess (Bruno Kirby) and Marie (Carrie Fisher), attempt to stay friends without sex becoming an issue between them. When Jess and Marie get together Harry and Sally become closerthanthis.   Over the next two years when they each experience breakups they’re the first person the other calls … I’ll have what she’s having. The film that sets the modern standard for romcom, this is hardly cookie cutter stuff, from the interviews with old married couples (kind of a poke at the ultra serious Reds), the meetings at traditional gatherings in others’ happy coupledom (a nod to Hannah and her Sisters), the gabfests with friends, the disquisitions on the impossibility of male-female friendship and the infamously faked orgasm in the deli. Harry meets Sally every so often and that’s the main narrative, at particular intervals with little extraneous action except these super-smart exchanges that bristle with wit. They spend years fighting each other and then they surrender to the inevitable and fall in love. The dialogue is priceless and the performances are classic. And it’s as simple as this:  if you’re a guy, you’re Harry. If you’re a gal, you’re Sally (alphabetized movie collections and all). Writer Nora Ephron and director Rob Reiner’s collaboration got it all so very right. As evergreen as the great American songs delivered by Messrs Sinatra and Connick.  I’m going to be forty. Some day!

Ingrid Goes West (2017)

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Talk about something cool, like food or clothes or Joan Didion!  Ingrid Thorburn (Aubrey Plaza) goes nuts at her friend’s wedding to which she hasn’t been invited and pepper sprays her.  Thing is, the bride isn’t her friend, she’s someone Ingrid follows on Instagram.  It lands her in a mental hospital. She idolises social media star and Instagram ‘influencer’ Taylor Sloane  (Elizabeth Olsen) to the point that she reckons all those ‘likes’ constitute an invitation to her to ingratiate herself with the LA-based narcissist and moves there with money her late mom has bequeathed and promptly kidnaps the woman’s dog so she can claim the reward and ‘friend’ her in real life. Taylor’s husband Ezra (Wyatt Russell) is a technophobic artist whose work Taylor gushes over but he seems nice underneath all the boho-chic So-Cal lifestyle. Ingrid makes his only sale. Ingrid’s neighbour Dan Pinto (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) is a wannabe screenwriter obsessed with Batman whom she seduces in order to smooth her way socially with Taylor’s gang. Everything seems to go swimmingly until Taylor’s druggie brother Nicky (Billy Magnussen) turns up and figures out Ingrid’s game.  He blackmails her and she has to come up with a superhero-inspired solution to his threat to reveal her stalking to his sister  …  Co-written by David Branson Smith with director Matt Spicer, which makes me ponder once again why it is that sometimes men are better than women at exploiting the vagaries of female friendship (read:  rivalry) even if it winds up in a rather violent and cataclysmic denouement – with a twist. Well Ingrid is mentally ill, after all and Nicky knows she has Single White Femaled Taylor. This is smart and funny and topical and gets under your skin about what it is to be popular and the nature of contemporary life while retaining a caustic perspective. Performed with gusto by the principals and produced by the unstoppable Plaza who totally gets why reality is being subverted and image is everything. (Maybe that’s why she has 1.6 million followers on Instagram.) This is what happens when your followers actually follow you. Message:  don’t live on your phone, there’s more to life than avocado and, as we are all branding our lives now, society is experiencing an existential crisis. Sheesh …

Tamara Drewe (2010)

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Life sure comes easy for the beautiful.  Famous twentysomething journalist Tamara Drewe (Gemma Arterton) returns to the small Dorset town she grew up in and causes a stir. Once an unattractive teenager known as Beaky due to her big nose, she’s had a rhinoplasty and transformed herself into a beautiful girl. She is the object of attention for three different men: Andy (Luke Evans) a local handyman and her former boyfriend who she hires to do up her late mother’s home which he believes was stolen from his family; Ben (Dominic Cooper), a drummer in a rock band she interviews whose girlfriend has left him for the singer; and Nicholas (Roger Allam), the lauded crime writer who along with his long-suffering wife Beth (Tamsin Greig) runs the local writers’ retreat hosting several wannabes and crime writing weekends.  Bored teenagers Jody (Jessica Barden) and Casey (Charlotte Christie)  decide to break into Tamara’s fixer-upper and start sending emails in an attempt to make Jody’s idol Ben fall in love with her instead and their interference triggers a disastrous series of events … At once satire, romcom and farce, this sly social comedy works on every level due to fantastic writing and performances. Posy Simmonds’ comic strip (turned graphic novel) reworks Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd in a contemporary setting and tilts its particular irony (and mockery) at several targets. Visiting writer Glen (Bill Camp) has spent a decade writing a book about Hardy and his findings are a commentary on the goings-on as well as providing inspiration for his romantic aspirations leading to a tragicomic conclusion his subject couldn’t have bettered. Well adapted by Moira Buffini, this is smart adult entertainment. Directed by Stephen Frears.

When Harry Met Sally (1989)

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Men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way. Years after a disastrous cross-country car trip when they’re leaving college in Chicago, freshly divorced political consultant Harry (Billy Crystal) runs into journalist Sally (Meg Ryan) in NYC after she’s just broken up too. They console each other over their numerous dating fails and become each other’s late night phonecall while introducing their own best friends to each other and have to stand by while they watch the pair (Bruno Kirby and Carrie Fisher) fall in love and get married. He’s depressive but funny, she’s awkward and self-indulgent. Then when Sally finds out her ex is marrying the woman he dated after her she gets upset – she was supposed to be the transitional person! – and calls Harry and then she and Harry sleep together … Nora Ephron’s witty and insightful comedic tale of contemporary relationships is so true it’s not even funny. What happens when you date your best friend after a traumatic divorce and they know absolutely everything about you? What good can possibly come of it? That was the discussion between director Rob Reiner and smarter-than-thou writer Ephron that led to this. The scene in Katz’s Deli is crowned by Reiner’s mother’s line that is now part of the language – I’ll have what she’s having:  Crystal dreamed it up but only after Ryan suggested faking an orgasm. The aphoristic exchanges are broken up with interviews to camera featuring old married couples recalling how they met. Now when somebody tearfully declares I hate you you’ll have to think twice about what they’re really saying. A modern classic.

 

 

True Romance (1993)

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How do you describe the 90s bastard child of Bonnie and Clyde and Badlands? Total cool. How easy is that to achieve in a movie? Well it helps to have a script by Tarantino. And to be directed by Tony Scott. And then there’s the beyond-belief cast:  Christian Slater. Patricia Arquette. Gary Oldman. Dennis Hopper.  Christopher Walken. Michael Rapaport.  Brad Pitt. James Gandolfini. Tom Sizemore. Chris Penn. And that’s just the start of it. It’s ridiculous! It Boy Slater is Clarence, the comic book-pop culture geek who falls for the pretty call girl Alabama and makes off with a huge coke haul belonging to her pimp and pisses off a lot of the wrong people. His dad Hopper does the astonishing Sicilian-nigger speech to Walken – and how stunning are all those jaw-dropping monologues, no wonder Tarantino is so beloved by actors. (Rolling Stone called his dialogue ‘gutter poetry.’) When the gangsters come calling the violence is sickening and yet the colour lends it an appropriately ripened comic book quality.  There’s a slamdunk shootout involving Hollywood jerks and practically everyone gets killed but Clarence’s very special mentor keeps him chill. Awesome.