The Wrecking Crew (1968)

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Faster! You’re an awful driver! Matt Helm (Dean Martin) is assigned by his secret agency, ICE, to bring down an evil count named Contini (Guy Green) who is trying to collapse the world economy by stealing a billion dollars in gold. Helm travels to Denmark, where he is given a guide, Freya Carlson (Sharon Tate)  a beautiful but bumbling woman from a Danish tourism bureau. Two of Contini’s accomplices, the seductive Linka Karensky (Elke Sommer) and Yu-Rang (Nancy Kwan) each attempt to foil Helm’s plans. The former is killed in an ambush intended for Helm, the latter in an explosion. On each occasion, Freya’s clumsy attempts to assist Matt are helpful, but not particularly appreciated…  My hat’s not broken! Dean Martin returns in the fourth (and final big-screen) outing for Donald Hamilton’s spy, taken out of retirement. It’s all day-glo, great locations and slapstick with Tate an utter joy as the klutz, a Stella Stevens role in the original The Silencers, with her girlfight opposite Nancy Kwan a particular highlight (and as Once Upon a Time in Hollywood acknowledges, Bruce Lee was her martial arts trainer). Dino makes out to his own songs – asking Elke when she wants her dress zipped, Which way – up or down?  – there’s a runaway train with the bullion, combat scenes galore and lots of bombs. Go-go boots ahoy for groovy girls and boys! Directed by Phil Karlson, making a welcome return to the series. Screenplay by William P. McGivern. If your sweetheart puts a pistol in her bed, you’d do better sleepin’ with your uncle Fred

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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 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

Wolves at the Door (2017)

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Some years ago an older friend of mine who is a psychiatrist said that showing another friend A Short Film About Killing had altered that man’s opinion about the death penalty with which he had previously agreedThe story of that film is about a passenger who randomly and brutally murders a taxi driver and is then sentenced to an equally violent death. Apparently this third party now agreed with my psychiatrist friend that the death penalty is wrong. My psychiatrist friend thought I would agree. I didn’t. I argued for my part that it was precisely the callous random nature of the act – a total stranger being murdered for pure pleasure, presumed sexual excitement and on a whim – that justified the punishment. A life for a life, if you will. My psychiatrist friend was duly horrified by my reaction. Nowadays I believe in life imprisonment. And I mean life. Which is all by means of introducing this re-staging of the horrifying so-called Manson Family murders 8th August 1969 of the beyond beautiful heavily pregnant actress Sharon Tate (Katie Cassidy), her unborn son Paul Polanski, her best friend Abigail Folger (Elizabeth Henstridge), Tate’s ex-boyfriend Jay Sebring (Miles Fisher),  Folger’s boyfriend Wojciech Frykowski (Adam Campbell), and Steven Parent (Lucas Adams), who wasn’t in the Cielo Drive house but met his end at the gates. If there is a text here that is worth discussion beyond the psychotic violence at the core of this exploitation film, it is about carelessness. How careless people are about their own safety, their presumption of civilised behaviour from others and the means by which a gap between our experiences and our expectations can be filled by the utterly inexplicable hate-filled rage of people we don’t even know, exiled from normalcy, refugees from society, indecent and obscene. There’s a reason we are hard-wired to have a circle of 150 family, friends and acquaintances – survival. It’s why kids are taught as soon as they speak, Stranger Danger. Some of this is expressed in the portrayal of William Garretson (Spencer Daniels) the so-called caretaker on the Polanski property who is portrayed here as a witless drug user with earphones clamped to his brain-dead head throughout. He finally died in 2016. Some of the perpetrators are still breathing. There are some episodes that do not require gruesome and explicit re-enactments. This vile explosion of depraved horror lingers in the communal memory for a reason. It fundamentally altered most people’s view of the death penalty which Manson and his smirking wenches escaped by the pure fluke of timing, unlike their wretched and helpless victims. One of them even got away to live her life in exchange for bearing witness. Other than that, I have nothing to add. Written by Gary Dauberman and directed by John R. Leonetti. Ghastly, tasteless and misjudged, in the truest sense.