Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

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The mutt steals the picture. Sure, Brad may be the coolest actor on the planet, the sense of calm, old-school cool that he just exudes in this film is just a wonder to behold, frankly, how effortless it seems to be… (and how that compares with the more introverted lead in Ad Astra) and Leo again shows how he can still surprise as he gets older…  but those guys can’t stop pit bull Sayuri (who plays Brandy, Brad’s pet dog in the film) from stealing the film from them. They should have put her name above the credits, it would have been an in-joke worthy of the director.

Somehow I managed to avoid any spoilers for this film- other than knowing that it was set in Hollywood and involved the murder of actress Sharon Tate, I knew nothing. Turned out I knew less than I thought. This really wasn’t the film I’d expected it to be. Is it even a film? With all due respect to Mr Tarantino, I feel the need to describe this as more as an experience than a film. For much of its running time hardly anything, dramatically at least, seems to be happening- certainly anything like a plot or the traditional three-act structure films usually have seems to be missing. And yet I can’t say I noticed, except about just over an hour in when I glanced at the digital counter on the dash of my Blu-ray player and wondered when something was going to happen. Turned out I had to wait for another hour for that.

I’m exaggerating of course. Or am I? Not that I minded, because I found it all pretty enthralling nonetheless. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is an incredibly evocative film, creating an amazingly convincing sense of time and place through a combination of superb art direction, cinematography and sound design (typically of Tarantino, it boasts a wonderful soundtrack of songs). Its so atmospheric that I can’t help but allude to Blade Runner, and how over the years part of the pleasure of watching that film was just being immersed in this incredibly convincing future world- in the case of this film, its a sense of being thrown back to 1969 and its long-lost Hollywood. I’m pretty certain that I’ll re-watch Once Upon a Time in Hollywood not for the jokes or the (sparse but powerful) action, or even the great performances, but rather just to soak it all up again, wallow in that sense of a time and place. Its an escape, just as it was when visiting the LA of 2019 envisioned by Ridley all those years ago. LA 2019, and LA 1969- the more things stay the same.

once1It may, of course, alienate those in the audience who prefer, say, Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, the high-octane, in-your-face, twist-and-turns and shocks and surprises that his past films are so famous for. This slow, rather sad and reflective film is unmistakably Tarantino- there’s still plenty of the ornate dialogue and self-knowing humour, but it all seems balanced by some new, maturer perspective. Its more a film about movie myths, the power of them, the nostalgia of pop-culture and how fragile fame and fortune can be. The relentless march of time and change and sensing your best years are behind you.

It turns out that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a Golden Age fairy tale, leaving the real world behind as it turns towards its finale. It leaves us finally revealed to be less a film, more some strange otherworldly dream, tricking us through the power of nostalgia and what we have grown to expect from a Tarantino picture. Its quite a sleight of hand by Tarantino, and really quite magical. I was really quite enthralled by the whole thing. I’m not sure it was actually a proper film, at least in the conventional sense. More a love letter for movie lovers and fans of the old television Western era then, and none the worse for that.

Modern Hollywood – Where Does Polanski Fit In?

Fascinating online article here from The Guardian regards the current moral outrages storming Hollywood and its strange relationship with director Roman Polanski. Its a very well-written and balanced piece that I’d recommend well worth a read if you haven’t already come across it-

https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/jan/30/hollywood-reverence-child-rapist-roman-polanski-convicted-40-years-on-run

 

Where I lose all my self-respect and admit to enjoying La La Land…

lal2017.55: La La Land (2016)

The cynic in me should hate this film, one of the most patronising and condescending essays on self-worth, validation and success I have ever seen, an almost religiously reverential glorification of the myth of Hollywood. A fantasy-land devoid of poverty or drugs or crime, where monsters like Harvey Weinstein never existed and scandals such as now encompassing Kevin Spacey and others never happened. Here people just want to make music, act, write, create, as if the act were enough, as if they would do it for free, as if it’s nothing to do with self-aggrandising massive egos or becoming famous or grotesquely rich. Never in La La Land is it about a $50 million paycheck, never is it about being an arsehole to everyone around you because you can afford to, or buying a luxury yacht or private jet plane or exulting in being ‘somebody’, being adored, being a ‘star’.

This isn’t the real Hollywood. This is a fantasy writ large, accentuated by it being a musical, with grand songs and dance numbers. Its an ode to the impossible myth that surely no-one buys anymore in this enlightened cynical age. La La Land is a fuzzy fable, something from some other era entirely. This film should not exist, it’s another Blade Runner 2049… wait, it even stars the same actor, Ryan Gosling. What’s going on?

Indeed, the biggest wonder that strikes me about it is that it even got made. I mean sure, Hollywood loves to make movies about itself, especially sophisticated ones like this full of lovely beautiful people living lovely beautiful lives in the lovely beautiful city of Los Angeles that doesn’t need any police or even litter bins. But a musical? Musicals haven’t ‘worked’ for years, as a genre it’s akin to the dodo, surely, or decent NIcholas Cage movies.

And yet…

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And yet the dreamer in me loved it. From the slightly WTF opening sequence on the freeway to the intellectually-satisfying ending, complete with it ripping your heart out, La La Land is the ultimate guilty-secret movie. I feel dirty liking it, almost. It’s wrong, I know. I shouldn’t succumb to its charms. But I really enjoyed it, marvelled at it.

That ending seals the deal though. That last ten/fifteen minutes added a strange sense of pathos to the fluffy adventure that quite surprised me, suddenly taking a detour into Some Other Movie- I love movies that do that. You know where it’s going and you really don’t want it do that but you love it for doing it.

There is something almost irrepressible about this film for anyone who loves movies, or particularly grew up watching the old movie fantasies of the 1940s and 1950 replaying on tv during childhood, all those MGM musicals etc. Hollywood was, clearly,  never the innocent tinseltown it would like to pretend it is, its image has surely been tarnished over the years to the point at which it can be polished no more, and yet La La Land exists.

The Oscars are not about deserving people winning deserved awards, it’s about politics and money and setting up future deals and greed and narcissistic super-egos of the super-rich. The real La La Land I’m sure is a frankly horrible place that destroys many poor souls up before it pauses for breakfast. But it always throws amazing dreams onto screens with abandon, cinematic flights of fantasy that appeal to dreamers the world over. That we pour over over and over. I love movies (well, good movies, at any rate) and the creativity of the visual arts.  I mean, in the cold light of day La La Land is horrible and manipulative. But aren’t all films manipulative? The beauty of this film at least is that it recognises, in this era of muzak soundtracks, ambient scores that all sound the same, the power and importance of music in a movie, that as a tool it has been discarded in the garden shed for too long.

But anyway, I enjoyed it. Don’t punish me for it, I feel bad enough about it as it is.

Argo (2012)


argoOdd that I’ve only just gotten around to finally watching this Best Picture winner from 2012. Its rather weird watching a film that has won such awards, isn’t it? People likely watched and enjoyed it just as a good film beforehand, but once a film has that Oscar glory its quite another thing watching it for the first time. Suddenly its Best Picture, Best of the Rest, something special… Only, is it?

To be clear, this is a good film. A very good film. Its based on a true story- you know, one of those True Stories that are so larger than life and Crazy Bizarre that no-one could have possibly made it up. Set in late 1979 when Islamist militants stormed the U.S Embassy in Tehran, it concerns six embassy staff who escape the hostage situation in the embassy and manage to find refuge in the Canadian embassy. However their danger remains very real, as the Iranians eventually realise six Americans have gone missing and start hunting them down. If they are caught, the Americans will very likely be executed as spies.

The CIA  sets up an operation to get the six hostages out of Iran, which involves CIA operative Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, who also directed the film) posing as a movie producer who is making Argo, a science-fiction film hot on the heels of the success of Star Wars.  With the help of Hollywood makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and movie producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), Mendez makes Argo appear to be a legitimate Hollywood enterprise, convincing the Iranian authorities that he is leading a six-person production crew searching for locations to shoot the film. The plan is for Mendez to fly in, link up with the six embassy staff, set them up as his film crew, ‘scout’ some locations in  Tehran and then fly them out on a commercial airline in full view of the Iranians.

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Argo wears its period setting as a badge of pride, depicting the styles and mood of the late 1970s not only in the film’s art direction but also in how the film is shot, lending it the feel of a 1970s movie, right down to the typeface used on the films credits- it looks and feels and sounds authentic (filmgeeks will love spotting visual references to sci-fi films/iconic images/props of the period). Original footage from newscasts and archive material is edited in pretty much seamlessly, lending it a convincing docudrama feel, something only heightened during the film’s end-credits when it is shown just how close the recreated scenes compare to the real. Its all quite an achievement.

Its a very intense and affective thriller that only falters towards the end, when director Affleck lets the film slip into standard Hollywood territory, an edge-of-your-seat escape with the airliner being chased down the tarmac by gun-wielding militia in trucks. I guess you can forgive the film taking a few liberties with the story to raise the stakes/tension but its still regrettable. The remarkable story the film tells should be enough – is enough, surely- so it doesn’t really need to tip things further into the fantastic. Suddenly, and not without some irony, the sense of reality falters and you feel like you are watching just a movie. Its a curious misstep, but maybe the film getting Best Picture would indicate it was no misstep at all. Any film that sets up the premise of Hollywood saving the day and itself being the hero was pretty much a cert to win Oscar glory wasn’t it? I mean, these guys vote for themselves and everyone loves to be a hero.

Agh. Stop being such a cynic, eh? Good film.

 

Fifty Great Films: The French Connection (1971)

french1Staying in the 1970s for the second of my Fifty Great Films, I re-watched The French Connection last night, this time on Blu-ray. Actually, I should point out the disc is the second of the film’s Blu-ray releases, an American multi-region disc that restores the original ‘look’ of the film (the first Blu-ray release, which is the only one available here in the UK far as I know, had extensive ‘director-approved’ colour-timing changes that enraged purists).

Time has been very kind to The French Connection. It’s gritty docu-drama style must have been eye-opening back in 1971 and proved to be a game-changer for cop thrillers, and today over forty years later it stands, like Taxi Driver does, as an historical record of a time and place long gone. Those cars, the music, those almost apocalyptic streets! Its a sure sign that with the new decade films were changing, and that a New Wave was about to hit Hollywood-  the film has a sense of reality far removed from that of a Hollywood thriller of the time. This would follow through to a downbeat ending that must have seemed shockingly abrupt back at a time when the good guys always ‘won’ and the bad guys always got caught.

New York was such a seedy, broken city back then, particularly in the locations chosen for this film, and there is an air of authenticity to the whole thing that is endlessly fascinating. Of course, that isn’t hurt by the fact that the film is based on true events, in which two cops stumbled upon ties between New York mobsters and French heroin traffickers, their subsequent investigation leading to one of the biggest illegal narcotics seizures ever.

You simply cannot take your eyes off Gene Hackman in this film- his presence dominates everything, and his performance rightfully won him the Oscar for Best Actor. Really, you cannot take your eyes off him. There is an extraordinary truth to him in every scene; he looks so beat-up and life-worn, a flawed,  middle-aged cop working on rough streets- I cannot imagine any Hollywood ‘star’ in such a role these days. Well, to be fair, there’s not many so-called stars in Hollywood these days with the lived-in looks of Hackman, most of them are far too pretty-looking and ‘perfect’. Hollywood these days seems more pre-occupied with fantasy and the ‘ideal’ than the gritty realities of films like this.  Co-star Roy Scheider is as capable and wonderful as he ever was, but this is Hackman’s film, no question.

Scheider of course had the success of Jaws still ahead of him- what a thought that is, what a decade the 1970s was! Indeed, when one considers that Hackman’s subsequent films that decade would include The Poseidon Adventure, The Conversation and Superman: The Movie.. wow, you gotta love those 1970s. It all started with The French Connection though, and its a riveting performance that shines brightly still. Hell of a film.

The Lost Weekend (1945)

lostweekendI feel I’m endlessly repeating myself here, I’ve surely stated it so many times on this blog, but I love Billy Wilder’s films. They have an art and craft that seems sadly lacking in modern Hollywood. Sure, they are often incredibly entertaining, dramatic and/or funny, but there is an artistry to them too, a depth of  honesty and craft, so even the most superficial of them (say, his late-in-career Jack Lemmon romantic comedy Avanti) has something special that rewards repeated viewings. Maybe its the casting, the performances, the music, the gags, the drama… maybe they just all contain a little bit of Billy Wilder’s soul. They don’t feel like ‘product’.

The scripts though; those are the real thing, so finely polished they put so many current films to shame; like so many of Hitchcock’s  films, Billy Wilder’s films had such magnificent scripts. So much care and attention evidently lavished on them, only when finally, absolutely ready were they taken into production. I wish all modern scripts were given such attention- so many films these days are being shot whilst screenplays are still being written. Look at what happened to Prometheus– all the work seemed to be on the design and the film’s mash-up of two authors work failed to gel into a cohesive whole; it is clearly two different films. And sure, James Cameron may have spent years writing his future  Avatar sequels but they undoubtedly will be clumsy behemoths with cringe-worthy dialogue and littered with plotholes. Its almost a given of any current blockbuster. Scripts don’t need to be so well thought-out as they used to be, there will be plenty of noise and CGI spectacle to distract audiences.

So its always a pleasure to watch a real piece of craft and art, and usually Billy Wilder’s films fit the bill nicely (well, I haven’t seen a bad one yet, anyway).

The Lost Weekend  has, incredibly, languished unwatched on the shelf here for nearly two years, a shocking and shameful statistic.  What have I been doing? In my only defence is the stark fact that, as Wilder’s films are a finite number, the joy of discovering one for the first time will regrettably always be a rarer and rarer pleasure. But anyway, I finally got around to it.

The film is a dramatic work concerning alcoholism and its effect on a life as it spirals out of control. There is an unflinching honesty to the proceedings that is both stark and surprising considering the film dates back to 1945.  Its dark, its depressing, but there is certainly a truth to it. I have seen what effect alcoholism can have on people and their lives and could recognise some of that in this film. Of course being set in 1945 much of what we see here is the stuff of history and rather dated- very often with films as old as this, one can feel its almost a science fiction film, as distant from the present as a film set in the far future, but this is certainly clearly as relevant today as it was back then. Its a great film.

On its original release The Lost Weekend  rightfully garnered rave reviews and success, finally wining four Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor. Yes, this was clearly the age when Oscars went to deserving films. I must say Ray Milland here was a revelation to me, I had no idea, of all the films I have seen him in, that he had this in him- what an amazing performance. Sad to reflect he would later end up as a bad-guy in the Battlestar Galactica tv pilot in the late ‘seventies, but hey, that’s Hollywood careers for you, no respect for whatever awards are on the mantle case .