Django (1966)

django1I’m not one for spaghetti westerns- other than this one, I don’t think I’ve seen any that hadn’t been directed by Sergio Leone. The only thing I really knew about Django is that it was presumably the inspiration for Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012). Django apparently was the subject of some notoriety due to its excessive violence, which horrified people at the time, although today its cartoony theatrics seem dated and almost quaint. It was directed by Sergio Corbucci, who would afterwards direct another spaghetti western –The Great Silence (1968) – which was known to me through its Ennio Morricone soundtrack which I bought on CD back when I was having a binge on Morricone albums a few years ago. Curiously I have that film’s Blu-ray release through Master of Cinema on pre-order for a November release, so when I noticed the connection seeing Django pop up on my Amazon Prime recommendations list, I gave it a shot, thinking it might indicate what kind of film The Great Silence might be. 

Well, it was sort-of a pleasant surprise. The dubbing is typically atrocious, the dialogue is dire, the story is so paper-thin it doesn’t really make any sense (its some vague revenge plot) and the acting isn’t any great shakes either: so on that front, the film was no surprise whatsoever. But there was something appealing about it. I thought the production design was impressive; I mean, its clearly cheap but there’s something arresting about the wind-torn, muddy streets of a desolate town that seems to be literally sinking into the mud. Its like the end of the world as much as the end of the West.

Corbucci’s direction is no-nonsense and straight forward with no ambition towards the mythic, operatic qualities of Leone’s work, although Django (Franco Nero) could be seen as an Angel of Death in some corner of Hell. The cartoony violence prefigures that of the Rambo films that followed Stallone’s First Blood (Django despatches dozens of bad guys with a machine-gun hidden in a coffin that he drags around through the film, and hilariously the ammo-belt feeding the gun never moves). I presume it was this body-count that infuriated everyone back in the day, and its quite funny watching the various stuntmen/extras flailing around in exaggerated death throes generally minus any blood squibs going off or anything- for a film decried for its violence its not particularly graphic. Today a film like this would get a pass for its violence but would be roundly condemned for its treatment of women characters, all depicted as whores, subjected to being beaten by male characters (or whipped, even) and an indulgent,  lengthy sequence in which three of them are caught in a mud fight that serves nothing but the pleasure of male viewers. Its literally a film from some other age and makes any of Leone’s excesses seem quite tame (Leone of course came under fire for his own treatment of women in his films, particularly Once Upon A Time in America).

Another Murder By Contract

murder2Its becoming clear to me that August has been a largely a month of re-watching movies, whether it be because of new 4K editions (True Romance), revisiting films that perplexed me first time around (Tenet), or just revisiting old favourites, as in the case of this film, the noir classic Murder By Contract, which came out as part of the second of Indicator’s Columbia Noir boxsets and which I first watched back in March. The fact that I have returned to it within the space of six months hopefully indicates the high regard in which I hold this film. Its really quite extraordinary. There probably isn’t anything more I can say about the film that I didn’t when I first reviewed it, but it is a remarkably cool film, from the catchy guitar score by Perry Botkin (which so good its unfathomable that Tarantino hasn’t used it in one of his films somewhere), to the deadpan performances of its cast, particularly that of Vince Edwards as psychopath assassin/amateur philosopher Claude, a character who will haunt me for years. Part genius, part idiot, a handsome dude who is horribly detached and casual in his violence until he finally, incredibly comes undone by his final target. It’d be a bit akin to casting a young Harrison Ford as Jack the Ripper or Scorpio; you want to be with Claude as he seems so cool but you know you’d be much safer in another country.

Released in 1958 (with such a low budget it was allegedly shot in just eight days), Murder By Contract was made at the tail end of the ‘classic’ American noir period, nodding towards the stylistic changes that the 1960s would bring (and the eventual advent of neo-noir). As much as it is a richly bleak noir it is a very, very black comedy. In some moments, its a little like the Wile E Coyote/Road Runner cartoon hijinks transported into a noir movie and really quite unlike any other film I have seen, other than Kiss Me Deadly and Taxi Driver, two examples which hopefully indicate just how odd a film this really is. Its a work of some crazy genius, one of the best films I will have watched this year, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I give it another watch before the end of the year. Some films really make a connection and this one did with me.

True Romance 4K UHD

true4kversSo I’ve gotten around to watching the 4K disc of Tony Scott’s True Romance that was recently released by Arrow. Picture-wise the film looks fantastic, especially the cooler shots in the first thirty minutes or so before the setting switches to California; once the story moves there, Tony Scott’s obsession with orange filters betrays the films age (there was a time it seemed all films looked that way), but detail is always very good -faces and fabrics of clothes can be astonishingly detailed, the widened colour gamut and the HDR both really do add depth. Its a great presentation and another example of why 4K is such a great format. 

I hadn’t watched the film is quite a while, possibly not since the DVD days. I’d first seen the film in the cinema, apparently one of the view that did- at the time I couldn’t understand why it wasn’t a big hit, I mean, it’s got mainstream success written all over it; sharp, fast-moving script, a stellar cast, nice music, plenty of action and laughs, but it just didn’t connect. Maybe it was just too ‘cool’ to convince, before filmgoers got used to Tarantino’s style with Pulp Fiction etc. Maybe only the film nerds ‘got it’ at the time. Certainly the scene between Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper ranks as one of the very greats and must surely have been cited in favourite-scene lists over the years since.

I think the problem for the film -and I actually count it as a plus rather than a problem- is that its not exactly a Quentin Tarantino film and not exactly a Tony Scott film, but rather something else in between. Its got the witty, too-clever-to-be-real trademark Tarantino dialogue, but it doesn’t look like a Tarantino movie, and while it looks like a Tony Scott movie (visually all sorts of nods to Days of Thunder, Top Gun etc) it never sounds like a Tony Scott movie: everytime anyone opens their mouth you know who wrote the script. It has this weird almost ‘indie’ vibe when so many Scott films seemed so depressingly, calculatedly commercial: True Romance always seemed more something his brother Ridley might do (witness Thelma and Louise that came out a few years prior). That being said, before Tony Scott went and made Days of Thunder and The Last Boy Scout, but after (jeez, what a filmography) he’d made Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop 2, he’d made Revenge, which is my favourite film of his (and by the way, where’s the bloody Blu-ray of that?) so perhaps True Romance should be less a surprise in his filmography.

Part violent crime drama, part geeky wish-fulfillment romance, the film always feels more adult fairy tale than anything real, and I’ve come to the opinion this time around that the two leads are absolutely batshit crazy insane and really rather quite scary. You can watch these kinds of characters in films and maybe even root for them but crikey, I wouldn’t want to actually meet them.

Anyway, anybody who likes this film really should get this 4K edition if they have the kit because this really is the best it has ever looked and it’s one of those feature-laden special editions that seems quite rare these days – four commentaries and then additional scene-specific commentaries from actors, and also new interviews to accompany all the past features/deleted scenes from the old DVD (and presumably Blu-ray) special editions which allows those discs to go in the bin (“if you got ’em, bin ’em” as QT might say). Really, the weakest thing about this release is the horrid box art (but at least the standard amaray case within has reversible cover art); other than that, this is absolutely Definitive and the last copy of True Romance that anybody shall ever need buy.

Mind, I can remember thinking the same thing in the VHS days when films finally went widescreen- was I really ever that young and dumb?


Columbia Noir: Murder by Contract (1958)

murder1Wow. We conclude Indicator’s Columbia Noir #2 boxset with certainly the most surprising, and possibly best, entry in the set. Irving Lerner’s lean, mean and endlessly inventive crime thriller Murder by Contract is astonishingly good. I have to wonder if I’ll see anything quite so enjoyable, exciting and surprising as this film all year.

Vince Edwards stars as hit man Claude, a young, handsome, charming psychopath (well, it IS a noir…) who is as cool as ice in his new ‘job’ of contract killer for some faceless mobster. After a strangely arresting main title sequence in which he dresses for his job interview to become a contract killer, he calmly passes the interview and takes out his first few contracts with supreme ease: this is a young man born for this particularly harrowing career. His success with his early jobs (eventually including his own boss who hired him) gets him awarded a tough witness-removal job over on the West Coast. He is met by two hoods who serve as assistants/watchdogs: the nervous Marc (Phillip Pine) and the laid-back George (Herschel Bernard) who are quite bemused by Claude’s unnaturally calm behaviour, who insists that he is able to spend the first few days swimming in the ocean, fishing and playing golf, as if he’s on holiday. Claude’s calm can’t last however- and he strangely starts to lose his cool when he discovers his target is a woman…

I can’t praise this film enough. I really do enjoy the studio-controlled noir films that dominate these sets but this one is such a breath of fresh air -allegedly shot in just seven days, its extremely low-budget seems to have freed up all sorts of possibilities for director Lerner to get this film made under the radar. In some ways its like Edgar G.Ulmer’s Detour, another rather radical noir entry, or perhaps Kiss Me Deadly, but this one is superior to both- in a league of its own, its a 1958 b-movie noir that seems to prefigure European arthouse cinema films of the 1960s, or even (and more tellingly) Tarantino’s pulp crime thrillers- it feels so cool, so fresh, so modern. The music score -a guitar-based score by Perry Botkin- is hypnotic; variations of one theme that mirrors the zen-like calm of Claude that becomes somewhat dissonant as Claude’s failures to assassinate his last target breaks down his cool. Its absolutely nothing like any noir soundtrack that I have ever heard but fits it perfectly: but then again, in many ways this film is so unlike any other noir I have yet seen and yet it is, unmistakably, utterly noir. The finale is quite sublime.

As soon as the film finished (it runs a paltry 82 minutes) I had to fight the urge to play it again immediately, it was THAT good. I suspect this is one of those films that you can just wallow in, soak in and experience time and again with the same pleasure of watching a damn fine movie. It really is quite marvellous and has leaped into my list of favourite films, its THAT good. 

Detour: A Bad-Luck Odyssey

detour1Edgar G.Ulmer’s 1945 noir nightmare Detour is a delirium of ill-Fate. Anybody who has felt their life is spiralling out of control at the whim of unseen forces will see much that is familiar in Detour– as will anybody who feels they never got an even break or fulfilled their early promise and dreams. Protagonist Al Roberts (Tom Neal) is a perennial loser; a gifted musician whose dreams of success and Carnegie Hall lie in tatters, reduced to playing piano in a threadbare dead-end New York nightclub. The only good thing in his life is his beautiful singer girlfriend Sue (Claudia Drake), but then even she disappoints him when she decides to leave and seek fame in Hollywood.  Al can’t see the point- after a lifetime of disappointments, he knows he’s beat and only more bitter failure awaits in that city of broken dreams. Eventually his loneliness gets the better of his depression and he decides to hitchhike across the county to Sue and try convince her that they get married. But Al doesn’t realise his bad luck is only going to take several turns for the worse (at the film’s close Al will ruefully note “…fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me, for no good reason at all”).

detour4Detour is a fascinating film, as much for things off-screen as on. There is a seductive parallel in  the career of Al and that of the films director, whose film-making career was sidelined to Hollywood Poverty Row after a scandalous romance with the married niece of the head of Universal. It saw Ulmer kicked out of the major studios forever, after just one movie (the well-regarded Boris Karloff/Bela Lugosi Horror The Black Cat (1934)). Always on the outside, looking in, Ulmer was forced to make no-budget b-movies for the rest of a frustrated career and possibly felt some kinship and sympathy for the frankly unlikable dead-end losers of Detour: indeed, is part of the films fascination down to the sympathy it has for its monsters and victims of fate?

In Arizona, Al is picked up by gambler Charles Haskell (Edmund MacDonald) and Al’s luck seems to have changed (Haskell buys penniless Al a meal and is going to the West Coast himself) but while they take turns driving to make good time, and Al is at the wheel, it starts to rain – when Al pulls up to raise the car’s hard-top he struggles to wake Haskell up. When Al opens the passenger door, Haskell falls out of the car and smashes his head on a rock on the ground. Haskell is dead -has died in his sleep, inferred by medication he repeatedly took earlier and Al’s inability to wake him- but it looks suspicious with his head smashed in. Al panics and hides Haskell’s body in a ditch off the road, and changes into Haskell’s clothes so he can continue his journey in Haskell’s car, posing as Haskell.

But is what we have been told by Al, and seen onscreen, what really happened? Is the narrative that Al fears the cops may come to after seeing the body etc what actually happened? Part of the hypnotic quality of Detour is the unreliability of its narrator: Al continuously professes his innocence, caught up in events out of his control, but what we ‘see’ doesn’t always gel with what Al says in his narration, or it feels somehow dubious. Possibly this is down to the film’s meagre budget- shot on just three sets, some drenched in fog to hide how bad they are, with lots of unconvincing rear projection, little in the film itself actually convinces; it looks ‘wrong’. In some sections the film has been flipped, leaving drivers at the wheel on the wrong side of the car and the cars on the wrong side of the road. Its all likely a result of working so cheap, but it does work in the films favour in adding particular doubts on Al’s veracity.

Regards unreliable narratives, in later years director Ulmer made claims that when a young man still in Germany, he worked on Metropolis (1926) and “M” (1931) as well as other classics, claims that have never been substantiated but air a certain mystique to his career and thoughts of what might have been had he not been relegated to Hollywood’s Poverty Row (Detour was made for PRC – the Producers Releasing Corporation, often described as the ‘skid row’ of Hollywood’s Poverty Row).

detour2Al, now posing as Haskell, resumes his journey West. He notices a lone woman at the roadside, thumbing for a ride near a garage. Al calls her over and allows her to join him. This is Vera (Ann Savage), an attractive but world-beaten woman “Man, she looked as if she’d just been thrown off the crummiest freight train in the world!” Al’s narration tells us. Vera is a monster, a witch, a harpy, a bitter vengeful woman angry at the world and everything in it, and woe anyone that gets caught in her path. To make matters worse for Al, she hitched with Heskell a few days before, so knows that this isn’t Al’s car, and that he isn’t Haskell. One has to consider if the film should almost have a glum Humphrey Bogart voice-over here: “of all the hitch-hikers in all the world, I had to pick up this one!” Vera immediately blackmails Al, spitting threats to turn him in to the police unless he does as she says, which first involves selling Haskell’s car for a fast buck and later Al continuing to pose as Haskell when she learns from a newspaper that Haskell’s rich father is dying and leaving his son an inheritance. Al has a sudden flash of insight, realising they can never get away with it, but Vera is adamant; she is dying of consumption and has nothing to lose and will drag Al down to Hell with her.

detour3Another detour: Tom Neal, who stars as the luckless Al, was for several years in an on/off relationship with rising-star actress Barbara Payton.  A noted amateur boxer, Neal was in a fight with love-rival and actor Franchot Tone in Payton’s front yard that left Tone in hospital. Possibly out of guilt, Payton subsequently married Tone, the rabid news coverage leaving Neal essentially blacklisted from working in Hollywood. However, Tone and Payton’s marriage only lasted weeks before Payton went back to Neal, and Payton and Neal’s relationship became gossip-tabloid fodder for years until they themselves split up. Payton’s promising career was long over and her life spiralled downwards into alcoholism, drugs, prostitution and and an early death in 1967 at just 39. Neal, meanwhile, became a landscape gardener and later remarried. His wife died and he later married again, but after a few years he killed this wife by shooting her in the back of her head, which he claimed was an accident. Convicted of manslaughter, he served six years until released in 1971, soon after which he died in his sleep of heart failure. Just 59 years old.

Yes, I appear to have taken a detour.

But isn’t it strangely hypnotic and fascinating, how the sleazy underbelly of Hollywood arises from stories surrounding this film, or, when watching it, one can get distracted from its unreliable narrative with considerations of the real-life stories of those on and off the screen. I suppose this is a special trick of old movies: as I have remarked before, one can look up cast names on the internet and learn their real stories, lifetimes summarised in pithy paragraphs.

detour6Ann Savage, who plays Vera with such consummate, horrifying scariness: a character decades ahead of her time, almost out of time, as if the character of a Quentin Tarantino crime flick fell through past decades into another movie. Possibly the scariest femme fatalle I have ever seen. Pretty. Earthy. Brutal. Desperate. Despicable. Once ensnared by her, Al doesn’t have a chance. Not long after making Detour, Ann Savage left pictures, got married, and later worked as a secretary at a law firm. Our loss. She’s clearly a b-movie actress at work here but my goodness, her Vera is something else: not evil incarnate as much as a monster created by the world, a victim herself, really, lashing out at the world with genuine venom. Poor Al.

If we believe him. As Al tells it, the two have a fight, and Vera storms off in a drunken rage to her room, becoming entangled by the phone cord around her neck as she threatens to finally inform the police on Al. Desperate, Al pulls on the cord that runs under the door, unknowingly throttling Vera to death…

But how much of any of Al’s version of the events in this movie is true? Should we believe anything of what we have seen? Is Al’s self-pity and sense of impending doom from the vagaries of fate just him trying to absolve himself of responsibility for his own actions? Has his mind taken a detour from his reality, telling an alternative version of events? Is it something of a synchronicity that I watched Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder so recently, a film itself full of moral ambiguity, lies and untruths?

Detour is a brutal, hypnotically fascinating masterpiece from the gutter of Hollywood, and I have to wonder if any of its narrative is true, where the lies begin and end, how the celluloid fantasy frozen forever bleeds out into the realities of those that made it.

Crawl (on your knees, sucker)

crawlaOh no, here’s another one.

This is one of those tedious movies that pass as horror films these days, or films in general really: wildly implausible, and carrying a bit of a whiff of Marvel super-heroics about it. Which, really, is getting tiresome now. Our heroine Haley (Kaya Scodelario) gets her leg bitten by an alligator, is flung around awhile with her leg in its jaws, then kicks herself free with her other leg, and later out-swims other alligators with said injured leg, stands, runs on it etc. She gets her right arm elbow-deep in the jaws of another alligator, shoots it in the head several times to get her arm free, later uses that arm for climbing, fighting, swimming etc. She gets mauled by another alligator with its jaws on her shoulder but frees herself again and climbs the side of a building onto the roof… yeah, mauled leg, mauled arm, mauled shoulder… who is she, Captain Marvel?

Her Dad (Barry Pepper), who Haley braved a hurricane to try and find/save, is just the same. She finds him in the basement/cellar of the old family home, unconscious having been mauled by an alligator, his abdomen slashed by teeth etc but he’s okay once woken up, and fixes his smashed leg with a wrench (auditioning for a Rambo reboot, maybe). Later he actually drowns in the flooded basement but his daughter smashes through the floorboards (!) to pull him up from his watery grave and revives him with CPR. A few minutes later he gets his forearm bitten off by another alligator, grits his teeth and ties himself an handy tourniquet with his free arm to stop the bleeding, climbs onto the roof etc.

These guys spend hours in freezing water, they should be blacking out with pain, trauma, delirious with exhaustion and blood loss… This film crashes the credibility barrier so early on and smashes any bullshit radar. This kind of super-heroics is getting increasingly prevalent these days, as if ordinary characters have to compete with Marvels spandex crusaders. Its so preposterous, so utterly insane, it almost threatens to be fun, but really, all the way through I’m thinking, “I’m being mugged here”. The only saving grace this film has is that it doesn’t use the family dog as ‘gator bait.

Quentin Tarantino apparently rated this as his best film of 2019. Either he didn’t see many movies that year, or he’s taking anyone who listens to him for a ride into la-la land. Can’t say it improves his critical standing in my book. Maybe he’s just trying to be controversial or something, or relevant until he gets a Marvel gig.

My advice, watch this movie with plenty of beers. On the subject of watery horrors, can Underwater be much worse?

If you’ve got a crate of cans or box of wine handy, Crawl is currently showing on Sky Cinema here in the UK.

Should have prayed harder: Nude Nuns with Big Guns

nuns1Hmm, this one I need to explain.

I blame my mother-in-law, bless her. No seriously, this was all her fault. Well, I say ‘her fault’, but anyway, here’s the story: we were paying her a visit the other day, and, well, she’s been buying some movies of late, via mail-order. Not over the internet you understand, but via a catalogue/flyer through the letterbox from the retailer Zoom, she’s been ordering cheap DVDs, war movies of all things, but hey, whatever. So anyway, we over there and she was talking about the last few DVDs she’s watched and she tells me about one called ‘Nude Nuns with Big Guns‘.

“Well,” she admits, “It wasn’t what I expected.”

Just the title was enough to provoke a giggle from me. “What,” I asked her, “what exactly did you expect?” I picked up the DVD case and shook my head, started to lose it, frankly, it was so funny. Well, I haven’t laughed quite that much in quite awhile. It felt good, you know? Its obvious I should laugh more, you know, with someone rather than at someone or a movie etc. but life hasn’t really been like that of late. How strange that I only notice something like that when writing something down like this.

Norma is 77 and she’s a gentle lady widowed nearly a year ago, and she’s been ill during the last few months, and she’s just managing to turn things around, find her feet with the new ‘normal’ that is her life now. Well, ordering films like ‘Nude Nuns with Big Guns‘ is some kind of normal.

So anyway, I’d never seen this film but with a title like that, how could anyone resist? Of course, that’s the whole reason why the film has that title, it has little else- the title is everything, which is a pity. A film with a title like that shouldn’t just be self-knowing, or winking at its audience, it should have a few twists, pull the rug from under the audience somehow, subvert expectations, offer some commentary even if its your basic ‘hey-this-is-a-Tarantino-Rodriguez-spoof‘ kind of thing. Instead this is literally naked nuns with big guns, that’s all this thing is- even expecting very little you’ll still be disappointed, and it wears the description ‘exploitation movie’ with a very capital ‘E’.

nun1Sister Sarah (Asun Ortega) and her sisterhood have been abused by their corrupt Church whose leaders are in partnership with the despicable El Chavo’s ‘Los Muertos’ biker gang, using the Church as a cover for making and distributing drugs and running sleazy brothels. Beaten and nearly killed by a forced drug overdose, Sarah has a (drug-induced?) vision of God setting her on a righteous mission to save her sisters and persecute the infidels who have sullied Gods Church and terrorised the area. The Lord’s work requires arming herself like a Holy Rambo and smiting all those that deserve it, especially the priests that dump Sarah’s lover, Sister Angelina (Aycil Yeltan) into the sex-trade.

In style, its obviously aping the Grindhouse films of Tarantino and Rodriguez; Planet Terror, Death Proof, Sin City and Machete– its no accident that Nude Nuns with Big Guns dates from 2010, just around that period that those films were causing such a stir (2005 – 2010). Its almost ironical that Nuns makes those films look so good in comparison, that it reveals a sophistication, say, in Planet Terror (a guilty fave of mine) that perhaps might have escaped viewers who thought it looked cheap and lazy. Fair enough, Nuns is obviously a VERY cheap indie film -it cost something ridiculous like $85,000 which wouldn’t get you a title sequence on a Tarantino film these days, but that’s no excuse for the film not tipping its hat to the audience a little more (indeed, it would seem the very excuse TO tip the hat to forgive that very awkward cheapness). I think this is what disappointed me the most- it should have been ridiculously funny, but whatever humour is in this film falls flat. Sister Sarah should have been cracking knowing one-liners like a Holy Dirty Harry or something, and all the excess of the breasts and guns (there’s LOTS of boobs, guns and sex) should have been delivered as self-knowingly and irreverently as it obviously deserves, but instead its almost alarmingly serious. Witty one-liners and winks in the script cost nothing and is where low-budget films can really shine compared to the pedestrian studio-mandated limits of bigger-budget films.

I’m hardly a religious person, but the way the Church is portrayed in this film is beyond irreverent, its almost blasphemous and offensive and could insult more religious-minded viewers. They might not be the intended audience anyway but a little more respect would have left a better taste to the proceedings, something a sense of humour would have facilitated. Its all so very deadpan, so very serious. I suppose the director, Joseph Guzman would argue it is indeed all tongue in cheek and humorous and not intended to offend but if so he failed. Any one-liners they do try to drop in (“Listen up! There’s a vigilante on the streets going around and killing the bad guys. In case you guys forgot, we are the bad guys!”) fall flat- either delivered badly by an obviously limited cast of low-rent thespians or directed and edited badly. The music score is unusually good quality, but slips into a Sin City parody as it progresses, only further cementing what the film is trying to be.

I suppose one has to allow for the films limitations in budget and cast, but that said, there is a cynicism to the whole thing that wore me down. Its naked Nuns, its guns, its boobs, its sex, its drugs, its… well, as if that would just be enough somehow. Maybe it is to the adolescent crowd, and I imagine this film may have fans (somewhere) but really, well, some films are so bad they can even be fun, like guilty pleasures (Life Force, yay) but others are just, well, bad. This is one of them.

Oddly enough, my mother-in-law says she doesn’t want the DVD of this back. Destined for the Bin of Shame, then.




Once Upon a Time in Hollywood


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.

New Suspira


This is one to look out for. Headlines regards Quentin Tarantino watching the film and being reduced to tears, or actress Chloe Grace Moretz citing it as the closest thing to a modern Stanley Kubrick movie, certainly have me more than intrigued. But this teaser trailer though really has be fascinated/excited by the possibilities. If that music score with its Wendy Carlos The Shining-vibe translates over to the actual movie, then consider me sold and queuing in line at the cinema this Autumn. This looks amazing.

The Limehouse Golem (2017)

golemThe Limehouse Golem has a problem: I guessed its secrets fairly early on. I guessed who the Golem was and why the murders were happening. For a film that is centrally a Victorian murder mystery, that’s something of a problem, especially if I’m not alone in rumbling the game so early (otherwise I suppose I’ve watched far too many movies and its getting too easy to ‘read’ them).

Fortunately for this film, there are pleasures here besides that central mystery. Set in a benighted, misty Victorian London the film is sumptuously staged; rich in gaudy colours and vividly ruddy murders, with a production design to immerse in really. This is, to be sure, a filthy London that you swear you could almost smell. Not quite a Tarantino take on Charles Dickens, but its halfway there and gives a suggestion of what that might be like if ever the Ripper took Tarantino’s muse.

Of course, whatever the films faults, Bill Nighy leading a movie is something to be cherished, frankly, and he’s in fine form here as John Kildare, a detective brought in to work on a murder case that seems doomed to failure in just the same way as the Jack the Ripper case would in real London a few years later- the parallels between the cases are deliberate throughout. Kildare is an outsider in the force and knows full well that he is a scapegoat for a nervous London and furious press. As he investigates the brutal and eleborate murders he becomes convinced that his case is linked to that of an imprisoned Music Hall singer, ‘Little Lizzie’ Elizabeth (Olivia Cooke) who is on trial for the poisoning of her failed playwright husband, John Cree (Sam Reid). Kildare is certain she is innocent and that by proving it he can also solve the mystery of the Golem’s identity, but time is of the essence, and Elizabeth destined for the gallows soon.

The cast is pretty great, particularly Cooke who has a great charm and charisma as she struggles to succeed in a man’s world. Sam Reid is good as her slippery no-good cad of a romantic interest/husband who is also Nighy’s Golem suspect. Music Hall superstar (and Elizabeth’s friend and mentor, as well as another of Nighy’s Golem suspects) Dan Leno is played with fragile grace by Douglas Booth. The rest of the supporting cast are commendable too- indeed, the problem with the film isn’t the production values or the cast or the direction. Its the script that awkwardly seems to telegraph too much.

It also suffers by comparison to stuff like the (sadly cancelled) Penny Dreadful television series that shares its pulpish gaudy charms; and also the period detective dramas of Peaky Blinders. Back when I first saw the trailer for this film I thought, who would want to make a film of this and why would they think it would prove a success at the cinema in particular?  There is throughout a feel of redundancy, that maybe we’ve been here before, and to be fair, those television shows have production values arguably equal those of this movie with the benefits of longer airtime for character development etc. Maybe this is just the wrong time for a movie about Jack the Ripper-style Victorian murders. Another period BBC series, sure, but a movie?

But whatever my caveats, its enjoyable enough and the performances shine, so certainly its well worth a watch.