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 Driver (1978)

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You know I don’t like guns. The laconic and enigmatic Driver (Ryan O’Neal) excels at manoeuvering getaway vehicles through the tightest of spots following robberies, making him quite in demand in the criminal underworld. His skill and notoriety, however, infuriate the corrupt Detective (Bruce Dern), who becomes obsessed with taking the Driver down and has issues convincing his cohorts (Matt Clark and Felice Orlandi) on the best way to entrap him. He decides to use Teeth (Joseph Walsh) and his trigger-happy gang, and offers them a deal in a set up robbery. Luckily for the speed-loving anti-hero, the Player (Isabelle Adjani), a gorgeous and resourceful woman, is around to help him elude the Detective… I’ll tell you something, I’m very good at what I do. Who says American cinema doesn’t do existential? Channeling Melville (Jean-Pierre) and Camus this boils the film noir down to essentials and provides a sustained picture of Los Angeles at night often challenged, rarely equalled. From the country and western music played on his Craig electronic notebook (I want one) to his moniker of Cowboy, the western allusions play out with an unexpected shootout involving a man who doesn’t usually carry a gun. The irony of course is in the casting:  Dern once killed John Wayne on screen, so brings that genre baggage to this tapestry of tropes. Writer Walter Hill was making his sophomore directing outing following Hard Times and you can tell he watched a lot of Raoul Walsh movies.  The generic character names are proper archetypes that take flight in this most meticulously conceived actioner, the car chases reminding us of his work as AD on Bullitt (he wrote this for Steve McQueen). There’s astonishing camerawork and shot design by Philip H. Lathrop, who did Shadow of a Doubt and Saboteur with Hitchcock and the opening tracking shot on Touch of Evil, as well as doing a great job on Blake Edwards’ astonishing LA movie Experiment in Terror and The Pink Panther. There are other titles on his resumé, but those are impressive enough credentials for one DoP. The limpid lighting and great cutting make this muscular thriller a visually haunting experience. The scene when the Driver teaches Teeth and his gang how to really drive a Merc in an underground car park is stunning and you know, when you think about it, they’re just driving around a car park.  That’s all. But it’s how they do it that matters. There is a winning simplicity and modernity that bespeaks careful construction to achieve this finessed cinematic affect. And there’s the significance of the cars in the culture and what this is about symbolically, a western scenario unfolding in a lawless town where Dern fancies his chances as omnipotent sheriff irritated by his constantly questioning sidekicks. There’s the usual hilariously inexpressive performing by Adjani, a great supporting role for Ronee Blakley as the Connection and a very satisfying ending. This is why Walter Hill is one of the geniuses of cinema and why O’Neal was a major star, perfect for the era. He looks great, he says little and he does it with surgical exactitude. He and Dern have utterly asymmetrical acting styles and make remarkably memorable complementary foes. One of the great Seventies movies.  How do we know you’re that good?

They Shoot Horses Don’t They? (1969)

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Don’t forget your poor old mother. Yowza yowza yowza! In the midst of the Great Depression in 1932 wannabe film director Robert Syverton (Michael Sarrazin) encounters manipulative MC Rocky (Gig Young) when he wanders into a dance marathon on the Santa Monica Pier.  Rocky enlists contestants offering a $1,500 cash prize. Among them are a failed actress Gloria (Jane Fonda) whom he induces Robert to partner; a middle-aged sailor Harry Kline (Red Buttons); delusional blonde Alice (Susannah York); impoverished farm worker James (Bruce Dern) and his pregnant wife Ruby (Bonnie Bedelia). Days turn into weeks as the competition drags on and people either drop out or die. Rocky will do anything for publicity and initiates a series of gruelling derbies and nerves fray as exhaustion sets in … That soap’s a little hard. James Poe and Robert E. Thompson’s adaptation of the 1935 Horace McCoy novel plugs straight into its melodramatic core – a musical drama about economic despair. And the air of desperation hanging over these lost souls is like a fug, admirably sustained by director Sydney Pollack. Fonda is superb in a complex performance as the brittle cynic whose psychology is gradually broken while all around her succumb to the physical pressure. Her fear drives the story. How extraordinary to think that Charlie Chaplin had acquired the rights to the property eighteen years earlier, intending to cast his son Sydney opposite Marilyn Monroe in the roles played by Sarrazin and Fonda. It fell apart when Chaplin was refused re-entry to the US on foot of his political sympathies. When Fonda was approached by Pollack he asked her what she thought of the material and the character and she writes about it as a turning point in her career:  This was the first time in my life as an actor that I was working on a film about larger societal issues, and instead of my professional work feeling peripheral to life, it felt relevant. It also marked the beginning of Sarrazin’s years as a leading man – somehow he fell out of fashion in the late Seventies. He would die in 2011. There are some wonderful contrivances like the flash forwards that certain critics found irritating but it all works to build a mythic aspect. This is a stunning, disturbing indictment of social artifice and possesses a haunting quality, with its title becoming a catchphrase (and inspiring a hit song) and Gig Young’s fraudulent host inducing a kind of existential dread of showbiz ‘characters’. Maybe the whole world is like Central Casting – they got it all rigged before you ever show up

 

Silent Running (1972)

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It calls back a time when there were flowers all over the Earth… and there were valleys. And there were plains of tall green grass that you could lie down in – you could go to sleep in. And there were blue skies, and there was fresh air… and there were things growing all over the place, not just in some domed enclosures blasted some millions of miles out in to space.  After the end of all botanical life on Earth, with all the flora and fauna destroyed and forests defoliated, ecologist Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) maintains a greenhouse on a space station around the rings of Saturn in order to preserve various plants for future generations. Assisted by three robots (Huey, Dewey and Louie!) and a small human crew (Cliff Potts, Ron Rifkin, Jesse Vint), Lowell rebels when he is ordered to destroy the greenhouse in favor of carrying cargo.  The decision he takes puts him at odds with everyone but his robots and they are forced to do anything necessary to keep their invaluable greenery alive. But when he finds himself playing poker with his remaining robots he realises the desperation of loneliness and then his bosses locate him … This is one of a slew of environmentally conscious sci fis from the early 70s. It works because it asks the biggest question:  what do we mean in the universe? And it does so simply and without deep philosophical pondering, it’s just a guy in outer space who wants to save the world and realises he misses human companionship. Dern is superb as the uncomplicated man who tries to save himself. Written by Michael Cimino, Steve Bochco and Deric Washburn. The directing debut of 2001‘s effects guy, Douglas Trumbull:  when you see his charming robots you’ll know why he got a call from George Lucas for Star Wars. Ecological elegance.

The Great Gatsby (1974)

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You can’t repeat the past? Of course you can. Nick Carraway (Sam Waterston) is a young man from the Midwest living modestly among the decadent mansions of 1920s Long Island. He becomes involved in the life of the mysterious Jay Gatsby (Robert Redford), a rich man who throws the most lavish parties on the island. But behind Gatsby’s outgoing demeanor is a lonely man who wants nothing more than to be with his old love, Nick’s second cousin-once removed, the beautiful Daisy Buchanan (Mia Farrow). She is married to the adulterous and bullheaded millionaire Tom (Bruce Dern), creating a love triangle that will end in tragedy when a misunderstanding leads Tom’s lover Myrtle (Karen Black) to her death in a road accident and her cuckolded husband seeking revenge … We hear all about Gatsby long before we meet him, even if Nick imagines he sees him on the end of the dock early on, with that green light winking on and off. It’s the perfect way to introduce a character who is a self-made myth. Everyone has a different idea about the protagonist of a novel which itself is a masterpiece of sleight of hand storytelling:  it tells us on page one just how. There are a lot of things to admire about this film which is as hollow with the sound of money as Daisy’s voice:  the design, the tone, the casting, which is nigh-on perfect, but the writing leaves the performances with very little to do. Redford, that enigmatic, elusive, evasive Seventies superstar is the ultimately unknowable, uncommitted actor trying to revivify his past love, even as Daisy cries out to this now-multi-millionaire Don’t you know rich girls don’t marry poor boys? Waterston does his best as the writer/narrator who knows far less than he lets on. Dern probably comes off best as the unfiltered louse Fitzgerald wrote but overall Francis Ford Coppola’s script while faithful cannot replicate symbolic effect and the entire novella represents in the most eloquent language ever written class gone wrong in the ultimate American tragedy. Directed by Jack Clayton.

 

Drive, He Said (1971)

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Jack Nicholson had been busy in one of the leading roles for Bob Rafaelson in Five Easy Pieces so it was 1970 before he could begin shooting on his directing debut. He had already written a number of screenplays but he was over-committed at the time he wanted to make this. He was starring in Carnal Knowledge for director Mike Nichols so he began Drive… without a complete script.  Jeremy Larner adapted his own book but Nicholson wasn’t happy with it and had begun writing a second draft himself.  He brought in Robert Towne to complete his vision on set, with the added bonus of an acting role for his screenwriter friend – that of a cuckolded, broad-minded professor. Reclusive screenwriter and director Terrence Malick also did a rewrite – prior to making Badlands (1973). The film was completed on time for Nicholson to report to the East Coast for Mike Nichols.  He edited Drive… on weekends and downtime from shooting Carnal KnowledgeDrive… is an exposé of Sixties left-liberal attitudes, set on a campus infected with radicals  and replete with ready-made mythological references which must have appealed to Robert Towne:  a leading character called Hector  (who of course  as the eldest son of the king, led the Trojans in their war against the Greeks,  fought in single combat with Achilles and stormed the wall of the camp and set it alight). And, as if we don’t ‘get it,’ Hector’s major is Greek. The radical elements were complete with the casting in the lead role of William Tepper – a dead ringer for producer Bert Schneider, whose famously radical approach to production would lead Hollywood out of the old-style studio system but would embalm him in the mid-Seventies forever. There is a romantic element that interferes with male friendship: Gabriel is the guerrilla, played by Michael Margotta. Hector is besotted with Karen Black, married to Towne’s professor in the film. Her name, Olive, signifies her role as peace-maker in the narrative.  Gabriel runs away to escape the draft.  Hector is the warrior in love – he is in touch with nature (his surname, is, after all, Bloom.) He communes with the trees in the forest, stays in a log cabin and is generally at one with everything that is not ‘the Man.’ The film was entered in Cannes and Nicholson’s efforts were the subject of scorn.  It opened in New York on 13 June 1971 where it got mixed reviews.  BBS apparently offered more money to promote it but were deflected by Nicholson himself, who was depressed at the critical reception. But its lyricism, message and sub-Godardian construction have held up considerably better than Nicholson himself believed and its countercultural theme still produces a striking effect.The film is structured around Hector’s basketball games – the opening titles are underlined in a stunning sequence by the use of cult musician Moondog’s music – later paid homage by the Coen Brothers in The Big Leboswki (1998). The filming style in slow motion corresponds with much of Visions of Eight (1973), which would itself be an influence on Towne’s own film style in his directing debut, Personal Best. For more on Nicholson’s work with Towne, you can read my book ChinaTowne:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/ChinaTowne-Elaine-Lennon-ebook/dp/B01KCL3YXQ/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1490221804&sr=8-1&keywords=elaine+lennon

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The War Wagon (1967)

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Burt Kennedy is a fairly unusual figure in western movie history – a gifted screenwriter who became a very interesting filmmaker specialising in humorous genre workouts, brilliant at managing and sustaining a mocking tone and creating quite original roles for women.  He didn’t exactly turn western tropes inside out but he was very good at playing with characters and situations in tongue-in-cheek fashion to subtly question their generic arrangement. Clair Huffaker adapted his novel Badman for this parodic outing. John Wayne produced it through his own company, Batjac, and rumours persist that he didn’t much like the end result. He teams up with Kirk Douglas, former gun for hire to villain Bruce Cabot, who ensured Wayne was put in prison for 3 years and took his land which has been a literal goldmine. Wayne wants to carry out a heist on the titular wagon of gold which is armed with a Gatling gun so he assembles a motley crew and intends an explosive takeover. Naturally, there are complications. The fun en route includes a great barroom brawl involving wisecracking cardshark Indian, Howard Keel; and there’s a nice turn from Joanna Barnes (almost the wicked stepmom in The Parent Trap) as poker dealer Lola.  Wayne and Douglas make a good, edgy buddy team and there’s always a fear that they’ll wind up killing each other as they trade taunts about guns and gals. They had previously starred together in Cast a Giant Shadow and In Harm’s Way. Some reference guides list Robert Walker in the talented ensemble but as he’d been killed by his psychiatrist 15 years earlier, it’s actually his lookalike son, Robert Walker Jr.  Good,laid back, funny actioner.