Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)

2019 #120
Quentin Tarantino | 161 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA, UK & China / English | 18 / R

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

The 9th film by Quentin Tarantino follows the fortunes of struggling actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman and best mate Cliff Booth (an Oscar-winning Brad Pitt) over a couple of days in Los Angeles, 1969, when they were next-door neighbours to one Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie)…

I haven’t reviewed Once Upon a Time until now because I didn’t have much to say about it (even my Letterboxd ‘review’ was just a comment on its variable title presentation). Even after reflecting on it, and reading other’s critical reactions, then reflecting on it some more (for over eight months at this point), I didn’t have much to contribute. Why was that? And I’ve kind of realised it’s because the film didn’t make me feel very much.

Sure, there are moments where it did. There are plenty of scenes that are amusing, to varying degrees. The tension as Cliff explores the house of an old friend that’s been occupied by a bunch of hippies. The catharsis and humour of the ultra-violent climax, and the attendant cognitive dissonance of whether we should be revelling so in this historically-revisionist execution of real people — not to mention the factors that further complicate that (you know what they are by now).

And overall I didn’t dislike the film. I wasn’t bored, despite the length; if anything, that helps suck you into the world of 1969. You can certainly feel Tarantino’s love for the era, his desire to recreate — and, indeed, improve — it. (It’s also clear that he really wants to make another Western. The excerpted scenes from Rick’s TV pilot go on for ages, ultimately contributing nothing to the overall story, other than getting to hang out in a ’60s TV Western.) The three main performances are all very good, DiCaprio and Pitt great both as a double act and in their own storylines, and Robbie off in her own little world in a role that arguably offers little on the page but she breathes so much life into.

“Don’t cry, man. It’s only one blogger's opinion.”

It’s all these successes that mean I do consider Once Upon a Time to be a very good film. But at the same time, I didn’t leave the cinema feeling moved or wowed. I expected the history-changing ending ever since the film’s plot was announced, that expectation only cemented further as I learnt of Tarantino’s love for Tate, so I certainly didn’t leave feeling surprised. It ended, and that was that, and I went home.

Tarantino has talked in the past about how Jackie Brown is a “hangout movie”, where the point is not the story but spending time with the characters, and getting to re-spend that time when you watch the movie again, so that you enjoy it more and more with each viewing. I didn’t really get that feeling from Jackie Brown (I didn’t dislike it, but I was underwhelmed and in no rush to revisit it), but I wonder if that’s how Once Upon a Time will work best. The way it wanders through its loose narrative, before arriving at a climax that is, really, only tangentially related to everything else we’ve been watching, does suggest that’s the goal Tarantino had in mind. I can certainly believe he would like to just hang out in the world of Hollywood, 1969. I suspect that’s the driving factor behind why he even made this movie — getting to imagine an alternate history and career for his characters (I’ve seen interviews where he fills in way more backstory than is actually in the film), and using his clout to literally recreate that time and place in real-life rather than through CGI fill-ins.

So, it’s a movie I’ll surely revisit at some point, which is more than can be said for many a film. Perhaps then I’ll have something to say about it.

5 out of 5

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from this weekend.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #49

Sex. Murder. Mystery.
Welcome to the party.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 103 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 14th September 2005 (France)
US Release: 21st October 2005
UK Release: 11th November 2005
First Seen: cinema, 2005

Stars
Robert Downey Jr. (Chaplin, Zodiac)
Val Kilmer (Top Gun, Batman Forever)
Michelle Monaghan (Mission: Impossible III, Source Code)

Director
Shane Black (Iron Man 3, The Nice Guys)

Screenwriter
Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout)

Based on
Bodies Are Where You Find Them, a novel by Brett Halliday.

The Story
After accidentally getting cast in a movie, fugitive crook Harry Lockhart is given on-the-job experience with private eye ‘Gay’ Perry van Shrike. When the pair become witnesses to a murder that it looks like they committed, they become embroiled in a conspiracy that they’ll have to untangle to save themselves.

Our Heroes
Harry Lockhart is our narrator: a crappy thief who stumbles into an acting audition while on the run from the cops, and ends up whisked off to Hollywood to play the lead in a mystery movie. To help him prepare for the role he shadows Gay Perry, a top L.A. P.I., who’s consistently, hilariously sarcastic. Also, homosexual.

Our Villains
It’s a murder mystery, so, that’s kind of a spoiler. Also: almost not the point.

Best Supporting Character
Harry happens to run into his childhood crush Harmony Lane, now working as a waitress in L.A. Soon she’s asking him to investigate her sister’s recent suicide, which she thinks was actually a murder. That subplot isn’t at all related to the main case. Nope.

Memorable Quote
Perry: “Go. Sleep badly. Any questions, hesitate to call.”
Harry: “Bad.”
Perry: “Excuse me?”
Harry: “Sleep bad. Otherwise it makes it seem like the mechanism that allows you to sleep—”
Perry: “What, fuckhead? Who taught you grammar? Badly’s an adverb. Get out. Vanish.”

Memorable Scene
Arriving back at his hotel room after they’ve witnessed the murder, Harry goes into the bathroom to take a leak. As he’s doing that, he glances round… and sees the girl’s body in the shower. He turns to look at it in shock… and pisses all over it. Cue hilarious exchange when he phones Perry for help.

Awards
5 Saturn nominations (Action/Adventure/Thriller Film, Actor (Robert Downey Jr.), Supporting Actor (Val Kilmer), Supporting Actress (Michelle Monaghan), Music)
1 Phoenix Film Critics Society Award (Overlooked Film of the Year)

What the Critics Said
“the plot of the film is almost willfully convoluted. But it’s also largely beside the point, an excuse for quite a few good scenes, most of them equal parts homage and subversion. The familiar ingredients of the hard-boiled school (and the noir cinema it spawned) are all here: the half-glittering, half-seedy L.A. setting; the protagonist’s expository voiceover; the jaded but ultimately decent private eye; the dead body that mysteriously turns up exactly where it’s not wanted. But Black gives each element a satiric twist: the tough shamus is gay; the corpse is discovered in a bathroom and accidentally peed on; the first-person narrator is not so much unreliable as simply incompetent.” — Christopher Orr, The Atlantic

Score: 85%

What the Public Say
“What’s unexpected about the movie is just how funny it is despite all the graphic murder, incest, torture, suicide, and dismemberment that occurs. […] Black effortlessly moves between legitimately realistic, unsettling violence (a murder witnessed by Harry midway through the film is a prime example of this) to wacky, slapstick violence (a late-in-the-movie Russian Roulette-style interrogation that does not, shall we say, go particularly well, for instance) without ever losing his balance. The real joy of the movie, though, is watching Val Kilmer and Robert Downey Jr. bounce off one another.” — Jake Farley, 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective

Verdict

One-time “highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood” Shane Black made his directorial debut with this satirical neo-noir, which can be credited with reviving Robert Downey Jr’s career for the third or fourth time (it led directly to him being cast in Iron Man). The film’s best quality is probably its humorous dialogue — choosing just one memorable quote was hard, though many come in lengthy exchanges. Downey Jr is hilarious, of course, but even he’s outmatched by Val Kilmer as sarky investigator Gay Perry. Even more impressively, love interest Michelle Monaghan holds her own against them both. The plot may be so confusing it’s easily forgotten, but the whodunnit reveal is beside the point when the journey there is so entertaining.

#50 will… retrace each and every one of the Baudelaire children’s woeful steps.

Tropic Thunder: Director’s Cut (2008)

2015 #24
Ben Stiller | 116 mins | DVD | 2.35:1 | USA, UK & Germany / English & Mandarin | 15

Tropic Thunder: Director's CutA bunch of obstreperous actors are too much to handle for the director of a Vietnam war movie, so he dumps them in the jungle to shoot it with hidden cameras. Things go awry; hilarity ensues.

Conceived by co-writer/director Ben Stiller in the ’80s when all his actor friends were in war movies, “struggling” with training boot camps that made them feel like they were “really in the army”, the idea of skewering pretentious actors hasn’t dated in the intervening decades, though the specific targets may have been updated. De facto lead is Ben Stiller as a cheesy action star looking to go legit with a serious movie, but best is Robert Downey Jr.’s Oscar-nominated turn as a Daniel Day-Lewis/Russell Crowe-type actor, who has an operation to dye his skin so he can play a black character. Less well-served among the leads is Jack Black, as the drug-addicted star of a series of ‘comedies’ based around fat suits and fart gags, who feels superfluous more often than not.

Following events from the safety of Hollywood are a pre-McConaissance* Matthew McConaughey as Stiller’s agent, and a Surprise Cameo™ as the film’s other best character, studio head Les Grossman (I imagine you’ve learnt who that is at some point in the last seven years, but in case not…) There’s an element of Hollywood-insider comedy to some parts of this, I suppose, but the characters are broad enough to generate laughs from a wider audience too.

Character buildingThe film may run a little long in the middle, though I don’t think that’s the fault of this extended cut. It adds just over 17 minutes across many little changes and extensions according to movie-censorship.com, but the most notable of these are character-building beats that struck me as fairly worthwhile. Nonetheless, it’s not so padded that it outstays its welcome, generating pretty consistent laughs.

While not all the gags or characters may land, there’s enough that works (mainly thanks to Downey Jr and Mr Surprise Cameo™) to render Tropic Thunder a jocular pillorying of The Movies.

4 out of 5

* I would like to apologise now for using that term. ^

Argo: Extended Cut (2012/2013)

2015 #13
Ben Affleck | 130 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English & Persian | 15 / R

Oscar statue2013 Academy Awards
7 nominations — 3 wins

Winner: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing.
Nominated: Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Score, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing.


Argo: Extended CutArgo is probably the most traditionally entertaining from 2012’s crop of Best Picture nominees. I know a lot of people awarded that honour to American Hustle, but David O. Russell’s film left me largely cold, and, even with OTT performances and funny lines, I think it is actually a very awards-y kind of film.

Argo, on the other hand, is a straight-up espionage thriller. Based on a true story that you’d dismiss as too ridiculous if someone had made it up, it tells the tale of CIA extraction expert Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), charged with rescuing six US officials who escaped the 1980 attack on the US embassy in Iran and are hiding at the Canadian ambassador’s residence. Tony’s plan is to fake the production of a Star Wars-style movie, fly in to Iran on the pretence of location scouting, and simply fly the officials out posing as his crew. To make the story look genuine, he enlists Hollywood makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to all but set up the movie for real. Then all Tony has to do is pop over to a country where Americans are despised and fly their six most-wanted fugitives out on a commercial airline flight.

I think Argo is a winner — with audiences, that is — because of its deft mixing of humour and tension. It begins with the latter, showing the siege in Iran in accurate detail (the end credits contrast photos of the actual event with the film’s recreation, lest you were in any doubt). The US public are concerned about the dozens of embassy employees held hostage — there’s wall-to-wall news coverage, plenty of gung-ho vox pops, etc. The US government, meanwhile, flounder about what to do about the escapees — in very-need-to-know secret, of course, because if news gets out… well… With no good plans, this is when Tony cooks up his Hollywood idea, and he jets off to California to set it up and prove it can work.

HollywoodThis is where we get the humour, mainly directed at the movie industry. Some say this is why it won the big awards: Hollywood loves a look at itself, and here it’s both satirical (“So you want to come to Hollywood, act like a big shot, without actually doing anything? You’ll fit right in!”) and congratulatory — after all, the plan goes ahead and so (spoilers) Hollywood saves the day. The film creates just the right balance between taking the mick out of Hollywood and bigging-up its role in saving some lives, while also not spending too long on this section that we forget the perilous situation on the other side of the world. After all, once all the fun and games in Tinseltown are over, it’s back to the serious business in Iran.

When we return there, lives are very much at stake, under genuine threat from the Iranian militia if the six are discovered. The latter sequences where Tony sets about actually extracting them are loaded with unease, particularly when, to maintain their cover, they actually have to go on a location scout, complete with government guide. These six embassy employees — secretaries, effectively — are of course not trained spies, but nonetheless must know and be convincing within their cover stories. They have overnight to learn complete identities in case they are quizzed, knowing that even the slightest mistake could spell their capture, and their capture would inevitably lead to their death.

As director, Affleck’s one arguable misstep during all this is the OTT climax. (Spoilers follow, naturally.) In some respects it’s an awkward case: in reality, Tony and the rescuees boarded their flight home with no problems — their tickets were pre-booked and the flight left at 5:30am, so there weren’t even any guards on duty. That would make a bit of an anti-climactic ending to a Hollywood thriller, though, so of course it needs to be jazzed up. The sixThat’s just artistic licence, really — it’s not as if these people were safe, they just had a damn good plan; and, as I said, you need a dramatic ending for a thriller. However, all the “chasing them down the runaway” stuff is a bit full-on and action-movie-ish. It’s not even accurate to how it would go in real life, if it had happened, because the militia’s cars would need to be travelling phenomenally fast to keep up with the plane, and they aren’t seen to be affected by its jets either. For me, the rest of the climax — the guards checking the ‘crew’ out, phoning the LA office, later running up to the control tower, etc — all works; assuming you accept the film is still a Hollywood thriller, not a fact-bound documentary, and so needs a suitably dramatic climax. It’s a shame they didn’t leave it at that, but not a deal breaker either.

This extended version adds about nine minutes of material, primarily in the form of a subplot with Tony’s wife and kid, which from what I can tell was all but excised entirely from the theatrical cut. It’s a humanising subplot rather than an essential part of the narrative, but I also didn’t feel it got in the way of what else was going on, and was surprised to learn it had been removed so thoroughly. There are also a variety of little moments reinserted, plus some alternate shots and takes used, often for little apparent reason. For the interested, it’s detailed in all its infinite intricacies here.

Argo is perhaps an unusual Best Picture winner in the current era. It’s the kind of film that would have been a mainstream hit back in the ’70s or ’80s, back when adults still went to see adult movies rather than solely committing themselves to comic book effects extravaganzas. (A fact I stumbled across the other day: Kramer vs. Kramer earnt over $100 million at the US box office. Serious movieThat was in the ’70s — adjusted for inflation, it comes to over $350 million. For a drama about a couple divorcing and arguing over custody of their kid! Today, it’d be lucky to earn a tenth of that, even if it was up for Oscars. But I digress.) It’s a surprising Oscar pick these days because it’s a genuinely enjoyable watch, rather than a gruelling look at something-or-other serious.

Occasional slips aside, it’s a well-made, highly-entertaining, real-world spy thriller. Was it the best picture of 2012? Maybe not. The best movie? Maybe.

5 out of 5

The Day of the Locust (1975)

2011 #38
John Schlesinger | 137 mins | TV | 18 / R

The Day of the LocustAdapted from the novel by Nathanael West, The Day of the Locust is a slightly scrappy film about the seedy underside of Hollywood’s golden age. The plot is neither here nor there in many respects — the film is about the grotesques who are attracted to Hollywood, and that being exactly what it feeds on. The bizarre, surreal ending definitely makes more sense if you’re already thinking about the film in this way.

The magnificent riot at the end is a tour de force of cinema that single-handedly almost justifies that whole theme — it’s what happens when their frustrations at dreams not being realised overflows. It could be argued it makes an easy juxtaposition — of fans baying for stars at a premiere with a revenge-fuelled mob baying for blood — but it’s still a just one. It’s capped off by the way one turns into the other, and how that turns into a kind of apocalypse. I don’t know how it’s meant to be read, but I choose to take it that way

(Spoilers in this paragraph.) If the riot is a literal apocalypse, then the next scene becomes an afterlife-set coda. It’s very brightly lit and white, like a Heaven, and Faye is still there — still in Hollywood, exactly where she’d dream of being — while Tod is gone. She’s looking for him, back at the Bernadoo where she was kinda happy, and she wants him after all — but he’s not there; he doesn’t want her. It’s a tenuous reading for a film that seems to be a real-world drama, maybe… but not a wholly unsupported one — it’s a flat-out unusual scene.

Homer Simpson. Not that one.Also brilliantly staged is the collapse of a Waterloo battle set. Appropriate as it’s one of the novel’s most memorable moments.

Despite having top billing, Donald Sutherland’s part is a beefed-up supporting role. Except he’s so good in it that he fairly steals the film. And despite fourth billing, William Atherton is ostensibly the main character. I don’t know if the film takes lengthy asides from him because they cast a fourth-billed-level actor, or if they cast a fourth-billed-level actor because the film takes lengthy asides from him, but either way these long-feeling stretches away from the only character we’re really encouraged to identify with dilute the film’s drive. Primarily for this reason, it could do with being shorter. Interestingly, the novel is a mere 163 pages (in my edition), meaning the film is close to translating it at a rate of a page per minute, which is rather extraordinary — very few adaptations do so little condensing.

(You probably recognise William Atherton from slimy supporting roles in Ghostbusters and the first two Die Hards. Believe it or not, his Ghostbusters character is available as an action figure. That is madness.)

Who ya gonna call?The Day of the Locust may be a mess, or it may be a flawed masterpiece. It may very well be both. For much of it’s running time it pootled along at 3 stars, pushing down toward 2 the more diluted it began to feel. But seeing the completion of Donald Sutherland’s performance in the final scenes, plus the way those scenes seem to draw together the whole film, revealing and fulfilling themes I hadn’t even noticed developing until that point, in a spectacular orgy of apocalyptic violence… well, the stars suddenly ratchet back up.

4 out of 5

The Day of the Locust is on Sky Movies Indie tonight at 9:30pm, and at various other times throughout the week.

Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (2003)

2008 #3
Kenneth Bowser | 113 mins | DVD | 15

Easy Riders, Raging BullsDocumentary, based on the best-selling acclaimed book by Peter Biskind, about the decade in Hollywood between the death and effective re-birth of the studio system.

It’s a broad story, with many threads, which means this film has a tendency to sprawl all over the place as it attempts to take an overview of it in chronological order. Consequently it’s short on great insight, but does provide an overview of what went on in this period — that is, the story of how Hollywood made the transition from the old studio system to the era of the blockbuster (a method which still more or less exists), via a brief period where directors truly had auteur-level control.

There are numerous interesting interviewees to help the story along, all of them people who were actually there, who lived through it and helped create it. This makes for a refreshing change, as most documentaries of this ilk seem to be full of film historians and journalists. Of course, there are many big names notable by their absence, so when the film makes its rambling way onto the likes of Scorsese and Spielberg that familiar sense of historic detachment does begin to creep in.

All told, it gives a good overview of the shape of what happened in this period, and how Hollywood became what we know today. Anyone after deeper explorations (of the period, the people, or the films themselves) will want to look elsewhere. I suspect the book may be a good place to start.

3 out of 5

The Cat’s Meow (2001)

2007 #92
Peter Bogdanovich | 109 mins | DVD | 12 / PG-13

The Cat's MeowPossibly-true ‘murder mystery’ set in 1920s Hollywood.

As with the similar Gosford Park, the point lies less in plot and more in characterisation — there are some good performances, especially from Eddie Izzard, Joanna Lumley and Edward Herrmann, though Kirsten Dunst seems a bit flat in comparison. The era’s style suits her though, and the whole period is beautifully evoked; for my money the prettiest scenes are the black & white bookends.

Sadly the similarity to Gosford Park is the film’s main shortcoming: once realised, it’s clear that The Cat’s Meow doesn’t have the same subtle complexity in its story or performances. In its own right, though, there’s much to like.

3 out of 5