Archive for August, 2019

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Posted: August 24, 2019 in Film reviews
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Directed by Quentin Tarantino. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie.

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The year is 1969 and Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) is a former TV cowboy struggling to navigate an ever-changing Hollywood. Having failed to transition from TV to film, and with his show, Bounty Law, cancelled, he’s reduced to a succession of villain of the week parts in shows like The Man from UNCLE, FBI and The Green Hornet. A producer (Al Pacino) offers him a new opportunity, but it involves making spaghetti westerns in Italy and Rick feels like his career is going down the toilet.

His best friend is Cliff Booth (Pitt), another man whose career is on the slide. He’s Rick’s stuntman, but thanks to allegations against him nobody wants to use him, so he earns a living as Rick’s chuffer come handy man.

Living next door to Rick is director Roman Polanski, and his wife, Sharon Tate (Robbie). As the three characters make their way around Hollywood of the late sixties, an era of free love and hippies, little to they realise a dark cloud is heading their way, in the form of the soon to be notorious Manson family.

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“Hail Hydra.”

And so Tarantino’s ninth film arrives (or is it his tenth?) with the usual buzz around his genius and the usual controversies that always surface when Quentin makes a film. Some of the terms you’ll; hear bandied about in reviews of this film are as follows: glorious, stunning, Oscar worthy, self-indulgent, overlong, baggy, violent, tone deaf and so on and so on.

Luckily, I’ll filter all those other reviews into one, because it’s all those things and more. A baggy indulgence at times but still probably the most I’ve enjoyed a Tarantino film since Kill Bill volume 1. That I have certain issues with it, and find certain elements problematic, doesn’t detract from the fact that its made by a man at the top of his game, it’s just a man at the top of his game who should maybe consider making more use of the editing scissors.

What’s undeniable is that both DiCaprio and Pitt are brilliant. Tarantino allows them both to deploy their movie star good looks, but also their big screen presence. As Booth, Pitt is a laconic, laid back cowboy of a guy, albeit one who’s zen like sheen covers simmering rage beneath. Pitt has effortless cool, and looks annoyingly good for a guy in his mid-fifties!

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It’s DiCaprio who gets the meatier role however, having to play both Rick Dalton, and the characters he plays (including some lovely flashbacks and extras scenes.) On screen he’s a lovable nice, guy, rugged hero or slimy villain, but off-screen Rick Dalton is a mess and DiCaprio is brilliant. Dalton’s twitchy (note the stammer that comes out on occasion), paranoid, depressed, angry and too often drunk. It’s a great performance, and in fact both men bring not only their A game, but their A* game.

As Sharon Tate, Robbie gets third billing, but that should not be taken to indicate she has anywhere near the screen time or agency that Dalton and Booth have. For the most part she just bimbles around Hollywood, going to see her own movie, buying books for Roman Polanski and, well, killing time between parties. There are two ways to look at the portrayal of Tate in this film, and as with certain other elements which side you come down on may impact on your enjoyment. Tarantino’s argument is that he’s humanising someone history perceives only as a victim, instead he shows her enjoying her life, doing mundane things, and this, in itself, is an act of revenge against the Manson killers. The alternate view is that Tate is merely a cipher, a beautiful ideal rather than a living, breathing person. I think the truth falls somewhere in between, but any life in the character is down to Robbie who does wonders with very little.

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Sadly female characters get short changed throughout the film, they’re either pretty but slightly vacuous, they’d downright villainous (hard to quibble about this given most of the Manson family were women) or caricatures; I mean this is a film that features not one, but two shrewish, nagging wives straight out of central casting. The only female character allowed to show a hint of something different is Julia Butters as a precocious child actor, but even she exists only to flatter Dalton’s ego.

Worth noting that the only non-white character is Mike Moh’s Bruce Lee, and he isn’t portrayed well, Tarantino shows him as an arrogant braggard.

I’ve always felt that Tarantino is a better writer than director, which isn’t to say he isn’t a very good director, and several times during the film he displays his skill for all to see, in particular the scene where Pitt visits the Spahn ranch and meets the Manson family. It’s a masterclass in tension.

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Don’t go in there, Brad!

At other times there are scenes that clearly could have been cut, or at least trimmed, so accusations of indulgency are well founded. This is Tarantino’s love letter to sixties TV and film, and it strikes me he decided to have as much fun as possible with the premise and to hell with the cost, as such you could never describe this as a meticulously put together film. At times it’s a meandering mess, and yet conversely that’s where half the fun comes from, because it is fun to watch Dalton and Booth go about their daily business, and Tarantino’s evocation of 60s’ LA is wonderfully done, we could have maybe done with a trifle less of it.

For a Tarantino film there’s a surprising lack of violence… until the final act where Quentin makes up for it in spades. I have no problem with violence in films, but I do think Tarantino goes too far here, especially given that the violence meted out to male characters is filmed in a very different way to the violence meted out against women, one is obliquely shot, the other visceral and filmed in all its gory glory.

Throw into the mix a character we’re supposed to root for who might have killed his wife, and it seems a little tin eared for a film made by a man who (like many others, lets be fair here) turned a blind eye to Harvey Weinstein’s misdeeds.

The final act also features a change in tone, the humour broader, the violence cartoonish, and it does feel a little like a different film, but then this isn’t unusual for Tarantino. Kudos does have to be given for the most part, as to his handling of the historical unpleasantries. When it was first mooted that he was making a film about Tate and the Mansons I think a lot of people were worried, but it’s probably more respectful than most films that’ve touched on the subject.

A hugely enjoyable film featuring some great performances, but one that frustrates because it could have been so much better with some judicious editing and more consideration around how certain things would come across. Or maybe I’m reading too much into what’s basically just a wish fulfilment fairy-tale? You decide.

Irrespective of my issues, this is still top tier Tarantino for me and I’m looking forward to seeing it again.

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Thin Air

Posted: August 13, 2019 in Book reviews, horror
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51KucvZBi0L._SX343_BO1,204,203,200_by Michelle Paver

Kangchenjunga is the third highest mountain on Earth. It’s 1935 and a British expedition plan to be the first to reach the summit. The book’s narrator is Stephen, he’s the team doctor and his older brother Kits, who he has a fractious relationship with, is another of the climbers. The group, five British men and a small army of Sherpas, are following the route taken by an Edwardian party led by a man named Lyall. Lyall’s expedition was a failure and several men died. Lyall survived and wrote a book which Stephen and Kits read as a child, which is part of their reason for undertaking the expedition.

Before the expedition starts Stephen has a disturbing encounter with a man named Tennant, the only other survivor of Lyall’s expedition, who warns Stephen and his group not to follow the same path.

They ignore his warnings and begin their slow ascent.  As the journey continues Stephen becomes more and more convinced that there is a spectre on the mountainside, an entity that means them harm.  Kangchenjunga is one of the deadliest places on earth, but a restless spirit might make it even more hazardous for Stephen and the others.

 

Paver’s central idea is a great one, there have been many haunted houses over the years, not sure I’ve seen too many haunted mountains, but given even today may people don’t return from attempts to claim the highest peaks, the idea of restless spirits hovering between base camps is a doozy.

Her research is meticulous, and goes into incredible detail about how such an expedition mounted in the 1930s may have functioned. Similarly her characters feel real for the time, especially in their, at times, barely disguised racism in their treatment of the Sherpas, and yet despite this there are no pantomime villains here, well except maybe for Kits because I think she does overdo the smug older brother trope a little.

There’s a lot of build-up before anything supernatural happens, and at times it feels a little like a travelogue, but her prose is good and, as stated, her research excellent, so the book is always interesting, and there is a subtle but mounting sense of dread as they draw closer to the mountain.

Once they’re climbing for real the horror begins. This isn’t a gorefest, and I’ve read quite a few reviews that state it isn’t very scary, and in truth it isn’t that chilling, and I can see what some people have said about the ending being something of an anti-climax, but when it works it’s very unsettling, especially when Paver puts you on that mountain, because it’s easy to imagine you’re on the mountainside, all alone in a blizzard, with only thin canvas between you and the malevolent spirit outside. The origin of that spirit, when it’s explained, is pretty horrific as well.

Perhaps it never quite lives up to its high concept (pardon the pun) and maybe it almost works better as a tale of men against the environment than a ghost story, but I enjoyed it and was never bored. She wrote another book beforehand that sounds similar, with a ghostly presence haunting an arctic research station, and on the basis of Thin Air I’m inclined to search it out.

Live and Let Die (1973)

Posted: August 11, 2019 in horror, James Bond
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Bond is back, but Connery has disappeared again, leaving 007 behind to make highbrow fair like, er, Zardoz. After dallying briefly with the idea of Burt Reynolds or Adam West, the producers insisted on a British actor, and in the end the man taking up the 00 licence was the Saint himself, Roger Moore.

It’s easy to make fun of Moore, easy to deride him as an actor and a Bond, but he made several of the most enjoyable Bond films, including this one.

Is it From Russia with Love or OHMSS? Not remotely! Is it better than many of the films that preceded it? Indubitably. Live and Let Die follows in the footsteps of Diamonds as a lighter Bond film, it also, in line with several Bond films, takes inspiration from other genres. Some might decry Bond becoming a follower rather than a leader but, for the most part it’s what’s kept the franchise going for as long as it has, it’s ability to reinvent itself.

Here the influence is Blaxploitation, and while some of the attendant lingo might be more than a little wince inducing now (honky, spade, pimpmobile) taken in the context of its time you could argue this is quite radical. Yes the majority of the black actors are the villains, but there are a decent number of them, and some are the franchise’s most iconic villains. Obviously I’m coming at this from the angle of a white middle class male so feel free to disagree.

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After hiding an Italian agent in his wardrove when M and Moneypenny come around, Bond’s off to New York to investigate the deaths of three British agents. He quickly becomes the target for gangsters led by Mr Big, who seems to be in cahoots with Dr Kananga, the dictator of San Monique (what can be the shocking connection between the two men???). He also comes across a woman named Solitaire who has an almost supernatural ability to predict the future.

I’m a fan of Roger Moore, but even I’d concede he should have quit the franchise long before he did. Here though he’s a joy to watch, effortless and charming, with a hint of danger and, for a guy who’s actually born before Connery, someone who looks in better shape than Sean did in Diamonds.

Roger was in on the joke but, unlike Connery, he plays it straight and leans into the ridiculousness of Bond. He doesn’t have the predatory physique of Connery, but similarly the vulnerability of Lazenby is nowhere to be seen. Moore’s Bond is brimming with self-belief, an assured confidence that sees him stare death in the face with a smile, most of the time. That isn’t to say he doesn’t face his mortality. When he’s on the verge of losing a finger to Tee-Hee, or on that island surrounded by crocs he does have the decency to look slightly worried.

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He’s not a nice guy though, from his assertion to Rosie that he wouldn’t have killed her before they made love, to telling Solitaire she’s safe now even though he’s planning to use her as bait. And on the subject of Solitaire, loading the deck with lovers cards is pretty far from 007’s finest hour. The only (slight) get out is that he’d already picked a genuine Lovers card from the deck, as did Solitaire, so you could argue it was always destined to be, or maybe the cards were picking up on Bond’s future deception? Time paradoxes aren’t usual for Bond, but then again this isn’t a usual Bond film. (but I’ll get to that).

Does Moore always convince in a fist fight? Maybe not, but he looks the part, and how iconic does he look in dressed in black touting a big fuck off .44 magnum at the end?

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As Mr Big/Kananga (sorry!) Yaphet Kotto is excellent. Urbane and intelligent, yet capable of flashes of anger and more than happy to do his own dirty work as required. Yes, the Mr Big prosthetics are a trifle silly, as is the fact 007 doesn’t cotton on, but he’s a top draw villain for me, shame about how he dies though. “Names is for tombstones, baby” is a wonderful line though.

As Tee Hee Julius Harris is clearly having fun. He’s a neat henchman with his pincer for an arm (and nice to see a villain’s oddity get a backstory!) to his affable nature, he genuinely always looks pleased to see Bond even though he’s about to try and kill him.

Neither of these men are the best villain however, which is kinda insane given how good they are, but they’re not the late Geoffrey Holder, they’re no Baron Samedi. I mean he isn’t in it that much, but he dominates the screen, he’s a giant of a man yet walks with the grace of a dancer (hardly surprising given Holder was a dancer and choreographer) and his deep baritone voice is a joy to behold (and by all accounts he was a lovely man in real life). All this is before he’s done up in his Baron Samedi get up, and this just propels him to another level. His fight with Bond is short but memorable, especially his demise in a coffin full of snakes.

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Best of all he’s a henchman like few others. A henchman who isn’t killed. Or is he? Were the snakes in that coffin non-venomous? Was he immune? Or is he really Baron Samedi, the man who cannot die? I mean he’s clearly still alive at the end, sitting on the front of the train uttering a wonderfully malevolent laugh, which doesn’t strike me as something a regular person would do.

And this is the thing about LALD. It’s the closest Bond’s ever got to an out and out horror film. I mean, either Solitaire is incredibly lucky, or she really can predict the future, which implies the supernatural is real, and if Samedi really did come back from the dead…

Whichever way you look at it this is a film with a unique and iconic production design, and certainly the most skulls we’ve ever seen in a Bond movie (and clearly was an influence on Spectre’s pre-title sequence).

2012_CSK_04431_0008_001(live_and_let_die).jpgAs Solitaire it has to be said that Jane Seymour is gorgeous, but yet again she doesn’t get a whole lot to do. She’s mysterious, but in terms of agency she really has none. She’s a slave to the cards, until she becomes a slave to love (or at least lust!). It’s also somewhat problematic that we have the virginal white woman held in the power of malevolent black men. Maybe it would have been better, as was originally considered, if Solitaire had been black as well (though she is white in the book).

Of course does get a black love interest in Gloria Hendry’s Rosie Carver, sadly she’s not one of the better Bond girls. As Bond’s allies we get Lon Satton as the poor unfortunate Agent Strutter, and Roy Stewart as Quarrel Jr. A nice call-back to Dr No. Thankfully Quarrel Jr. survives! Hurrah.

David Hedison is Felix, and it’s kinda ironic him giving Bond shark advice given what’ll happen to him in Licence to Kill! Still, he’s always been one of my favourite Felixs, and other than Jeffrey Wright the only Felix to be in more than one film.

Finally there is Clifton James as Sherriff J.W. Pepper as well. Again a divisive character, but for me he’s a lot of fun, and utters some memorable lines (“What are you, some kind of doomsday machine?”) He probably shouldn’t have shown up in The Man with the Golden Gun though.

After some substandard action fare in Diamonds, there’s some great set pieces here. The bus chase is fun, and the crocodile leap is inspired. The Louisiana speedboat chase is nicely shot, and comes to a neat conclusion. Bond hand gliding to Solitaire’s mansion is great, and Bond infiltrating the voodoo ceremony is just fantastic. Bond’s final fight with Tee Hee is good too.

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It’s not perfect, the Bond-less pre-title sequence is a bit of a chore (but have we ever met the villain and the girl before Bond before?) but I guess they didn’t want to ape the intro of George. The plane chase with Mrs Bell is a trifle silly, and Bond’s method of killing Kananga does a disservice to that character (and is surprisingly bloodless).

Also, just who is it that tips Bond off that Rosie is a wrong-un by slipping him the Queen of Cups? It doesn’t make a lot of sense.

A final word on the music. Paul McCartney and Wings’ title track is easily one of the top five in the franchise, and much as I adore John Barry, George Martin’s score here is wonderful and perfect for this film.

One of my favourite films in the franchise and probably tied for Roger’s best Bond flick all round (I’ll let you know if a couple of films time)

Anyway, James Bond will return, with an extra nipple…

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