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

Happy 89th Birthday Robert Evans 29th June 2019!

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He was a successful child actor on radio and made the transition to juvenile roles on the silver screen. When that ran out of road he sold ladies’ slacks with his brother, making a million in women’s pants, as he liked to put it. Then he became the head of production at Paramount and was behind some of the best films in the last era that we can truly call a golden age of cinema, the New Hollywood.  He prioritised story above all so it’s apt that he wrote one of the best memoirs ever about the movie business The Kid Stays in the Picture which became a documentary (and an ace radio book). He’s hilarious and now he’s eighty-nine. Happy birthday Robert Evans!

 

 

 

 

The Fearless Vampire Killers or, Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are In My Neck (1967)

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Aka Dance of the VampiresThat night, penetrating deep into the heart of Transylvania, Professor Abronsius was unaware that he was on the point of reaching the goal of his mysterious investigations. In the mid-nineteenth century tottering bat researcher (and vampire hunter) Professor Abronsius (Jack MacGowran) and his dim-witted bumbling assistant Alfred (Roman Polanski) travel to a small mountain village where they find the tell-tale traces of vampirism. Shy Alfred becomes enchanted by Sarah (Sharon Tate) the local tavern keeper Yoine Shagal’s (Alfie Bass) daughter, before she is promptly abducted. Determined to save the buxom maiden they confront the undead Count von Krolock (Ferdy Mayne) in his castle… Takes me for a nincompoop, that necrophile. Despite its ostensible status as a parody, this is a mesmerising, beautiful concoction that might be the purest expression of writer/director Roman Polanski’s worldview:  witty, satirical, brilliantly poised between comedy and horror with hints of fairytale and deathly romance and a rather twist(ed) ending. From a story and screenplay by himself and Gérard Brach with exquisite cinematography by Douglas Slocombe, this mitteleuropäischer story was shot in the Trentino instead of Austria but it’s still in Polanski’s Alps and his love of the mountains and the juxtaposition of blood with snow is evident even in the titles sequence (the American version has a silly animation). The cast is perfection with Mayne hilarious in his Christopher Lee tribute and Iain Quarrier a hoot as his gay son;  Terry Downes is a scream as their servant; Bass has perhaps his best film part: Oy vey, have you got the wrong vampire!  The leads are sensational. MacGowran is lovable as the dotty expert and Polanski is positively Kafaesque as his fearful sidekick. Tate is one of the most staggeringly beautiful women ever on celluloid and the story gives her many bright moments. Last week I viewed those personal belongings of hers that are going on sale at Julien’s Auctions in Los Angeles in a couple of weeks and it made me very sad, indeed I felt somewhat vampiric. She is gone almost fifty years and this year she would have turned 75 (last January 24th). Seeing her possessions behind glass – clothing, mementos, photographs – was unbelievably poignant. It is simply unfathomable that she suffered such a terrible demise. This is a delightful memorial to her and she and Polanski are terrific in the one film they made together before their marriage.  That night, fleeing from Transylvania, Professor Abronsius never guessed he was carrying away with him the very evil he had wished to destroy. Thanks to him, this evil would at last be able to spread across the world

Knife in the Water (1962)

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You’re just like him… only half his age, and twice as dumb.  On their way to an afternoon on the lake, husband and wife sportswriter Andrzej (Leon Niemczyk) and Krystyna (Jolanta Umecka) nearly run over a young unnamed hitchhiker (Zygmunt Malanowicz). Inviting the young man onto the boat with them, Andrzej begins to subtly torment him; the hitchhiker responds by challenging his masculinity and making overtures toward Krystyna. When the hitchhiker is accidentally knocked overboard, Andrzej panics and leaves the boat to go to the police. The hitchhiker appears from behind a buoy where he’s been concealing himself and has sex with Krystyna who’s alone on the deck.  Then she reunites with Andrzej … Roman Polanski’s debut was nominated for the Best Foreign Film at the 1963 Academy Awards and announced a major talent. The imaginative direction of a limited cast in such a confined space led to it being chosen as the still on a Time cover story about international cinema. Tense, psychologically challenging and boasting a pervasive sense of danger and violence, this is a remarkable and occasionally audacious piece of work with a wonderful jazz score by Kryzsztof Komeda. Co-written by Polanski with Jakub Goldberg and Jerzy Skolimowski.

Chinatown (1974)

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How do you describe a movie you’ve seen? How do you write a movie you’ve seen in your head so many times it’s like you lived it? The stars aligned when this one was made. Robert Towne turned down a lot of money to adapt The Great Gatsby for producer Robert Evans to decamp to Catalina Island with his great friends – the scholar Edward Taylor and his dog Hira. There, in the winter of 1971, he wrote one of the great Hollywood films, a fictionalised telling of the diversion of water from the Owens River Valley, set a few decades later than it occurred.  Private eye Jake/JJ Gittes was based on his friend Jack Nicholson, who played the role as born to it. Los Angeles, 1937. Jake is hired by a woman to investigate her cheating husband and gets mired in a mystery he could never hope to solve:  the corruption infesting the State of California and the distribution of Water (and Power), unwittingly finding himself falling in love with an heiress who’s given birth to her sister/daughter, the progeny of the man responsible for raping the land. Towne wrote a second draft which reads like Hammett, a beautiful exercise in pulp noir: I love it so much I dream about that biplane ride out to Catalina. But director Roman Polanski forced Towne into a third draft with an altered ending which is what was shot. Even with plot holes it’s extraordinary, shocking, funny, terrifying and blindingly brilliant, a sublime cinematic experience. It’s a modern classic, for which Towne won the Academy Award. The guide at Paramount may be too young to know about it when you do the studio tour but if you want to know more you can read my book about Towne and this film and all the other screenplays he’s written and films he’s made: https://www.amazon.com/ChinaTowne-Elaine-Lennon-ebook/dp/B01KCL3YXQ/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1481117503&sr=1-3&keywords=elaine+lennon.

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Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

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This is not a dream, this is really happening! Such was writer/director Roman Polanski’s respect for Ira Levin’s novel that when he wanted to make one minor alteration to the modern classic he contacted the author to ask his permission. The novel is a satire about modernity but such was its impact the story’s surface elements about devil worshippers in NYC’s Dakota Building off Central Park retain a blackly comic power, aided enormously by the staging, photographing and performances. Mia Farrow is the limpid Rosemary Woodhouse, whose new husband Guy (John Cassavetes) is an ambitious actor quick to sacrifice his beloved and sell his soul for fame. (Sometimes I think Cassavetes’ casting is the film’s one mistake – anyone could mistake him for the devil with that face.) Ruth Gordon is raucously hilarious as the overly nosy neighbour with a penchant for chocolate mouse (with a distinctly chalky undertaste) while Sidney Blackmer is her persuasive husband whose obscure origins are uncovered by Rosemary’s friend. Farrow’s horrifying deterioration throughout her pregnancy is complemented by that famous Vidal Sassoon cut she got on set. The daylight in the brilliantly designed apartment;  the framing and movement through space;  the tone;  all these are components of Polanski’s inimitable filmmaking, and, together with William A. Fraker’s cinematography and the score by Christopher Komeda you have a classic of Gothic paranoia and a masterpiece of cinema. Every time I hear Farrow singing along to the title I quake and yet I keep watching, and I peer around that door, just like Polanski wants me to do… Terrifying and unforgettable.

The Ghost Writer (2010)

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Aka The Ghost. Robert Harris’ wickedly sly satire on the Blair Prime Ministership gets the full Polanski treatment here – replete with a changed and very shocking ending (he does this – just ask Robert Towne!). Ewan McGregor is the unvarnished wideboy London sleb journo preyed upon to become the second ghost writer of Adam Lang (a brilliantly cast Pierce Brosnan) the former PM’s memoirs after the previous one allegedly committed suicide. He arrives to his isolated Elba-like Massachusetts retreat to find Lang is under investigation by the International Criminal Court over suspected rendition and torture for the benefit of the CIA. He begins to realise that under Lang’s suavely non-committal charm there may lie a secret that his predecessor uncovered and that he may in fact have been murdered … Harris’ own adaptation (with Polanski) is faithful to a blackly comic work with many witty characters and roleplays in particular that of Olivia Williams playing Lady Macbeth wielding power behind the throne. Brosnan is terrific as the famous charisma machine, Kim Cattrall is the cat’s pyjamas as Lang’s right hand woman (and we presume his mistress) while McGregor is perfect as the guy on the make who is pulled into something he doesn’t understand. Taut, oppressive, brilliant filmmaking with an exquisite, inventive score (his best?) by Alexandre Desplat and as for the ending … I was totally shaken by it. Stunning.

Carnage (2011)

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Roman Polanski’s films are always cause for anticipation. His frequent theatre adaptations are of variable interest – sometimes one wonders how this master of cinema chooses material which seems narrow and stagebound. This however is a chamber piece of depth which improves upon multiple viewings. Two couples are brought together by an act of violence between their children in a Brooklyn park. They degenerate into chaotic children themselves as their standards deteriorate in this one-acter by Yasmine Reza (Art). It helps that they are played by Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly as the parents of the son who is losing his teeth and Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet as the parents of a boy whose father calls him a thug and a maniac. It involves barfing on rare art books, a hamster, terrible cake and dubious episodes of political correctness which get the derision they deserve. This is the third most produced play of the 2000s. It’s funny.