Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: Tarantino’s swansong

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is the ninth film by Quentin Tarantino – and it’s one you’d better make sure you watch because he’s only making one more and that’s it, he’s done. His legacy of ten films will be there for us to watch but no more will be made, verily the movie gods have spoken (until he gets bored and comes out of retirement).

Now this used to make me sad, but in recent years it’s bothered me less. With each film he releases I end up enjoying them in parts, but don’t come out of the cinema fired up the way I used to – perhaps not since Kill Bill have I been blown away by one of his films. Yes, his stories all have had standout scenes and moments, but they just haven’t engaged me scene for scene the way his early ones did. His great vengeance and furious anger has dissapated.

The problem lies in the edit

Since his editor, Sally Menke, died in 2010 (she edited all of his films up until Inglorious Basterds) his storytelling has never been as tight. Legendary director Peter Bogdanovich was reportedly so good because he inherently understood the editing process; indeed, he was a brilliant editor in his own right. This is something Tarantino lacks and no one is strong enough to stand up to him in this regard, be it an editor or a producer.

As a result Once Upon a Time in Hollywood clocks in at 2 hours 45 minutes. If you add trailers we’re talking 3 hours plus – and this is the case every time you see one of his films these days. Add to this that I’ve read recently he wants to release an even longer version. If this doesn’t tell us he completely believes his own hype, then I don’t know what does.

Once upon a time…

Edit aside, the story here is an interesting one. It focuses on TV leading man Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), an actor whose star power is fading. A man trying to revive his career, but in general only has his stunt man and best friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) in his corner, supporting his choices and acting as kind of a big brother. Cliff drives Rick around trying to keep him on the straight and narrow. They prop each other up and the dynamic between these two alpha males of Hollywood is the beating heart of this story.

Pitt is all easygoing charm, much like his character Rusty in Ocean’s Eleven. DiCaprio is tense, twitchy and unhinged, drawing on his characters from Wolf of Wall Street, Shutter Island and a host of others. It’s a delightful pairing and their chemistry sings in each scene. You just want to spend time watching them hang out and shoot the breeze.

A love letter to Sharon

Ahead of the film’s release many expected this story to focus on Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and the days leading up to her murder, but it doesn’t. The slight of hand Tarantino has played with the film’s marketing has frustrated some who have written about feeling cheated. They’ve been given minimal Tate (and therefore minimal Robbie). Yes, she’s a presence throughout, but her story is only very loosely connected to Dalton’s, which is the main one we follow.

Tarantino has written about how he just wanted to spend time with her, celebrating Tate as a person and an artist. This comes across, but is does feel like a waste of Robbie and we still don’t hugely get to know Tate as a person from this film. Robbie is an Oscar-winner and could have brought so much more to the part, had she been given more to work with.

There are things to love

Despite the baggy run time and the strangely languid pace of storytelling there are still many things to love in this film. I mean, you’ve got Pitt, DiCaprio and Robbie as the leads – three beautiful humans and all powerhouse actors. Pitt’s laidback charisma shines through in every scene. DiCaprio has played a bad guy for Tarantino before in Django Unchained and, in a sequence in this film, he plays the bad guy again, but not in the way you might think. It’s rather inspired. People forget how good he is at comedy.

And Robbie, whilst not having a great deal to do, drifts through the film as perhaps a symbol of innocence, beauty and hope for the future. It’s a joy to watch her dance and smile on screen. I just wish she had been more integral to the A plot story.

So, all in all, this film for me sits about mid-teir Tarantino. It looks beautiful and there were a few standout scenes and moments, but the issue I had was, like his last three, it’s overlong and drifts rather than engages me in the story and the characters.

Maybe some day someone will release a tighter edit of this film. I’d get behind that. In the meantime we have one more to go, I for one am most curious about what his final film will be. I hope he burns out rather than fades away as a director.

That’s paranoia baby!

SHUTTER ISLANDThat creeping sense of dread. Tick, tock, goes the clock. Your time is up. Is someone approaching? Did I leave the oven on? And what about those damn test results?

We’ve all got paranoid at one time or another. Difference is we’re often alone with our thoughts, or boring friends and family with our self-destructive ramblings. Whereas on film we’re witness to a character’s descent into madness, every step of the way.

Which of these mad, raving loonies are you most like in your darkest moments?

Teddy Daniels Shutter Island
This film gets better with every viewing. As Scorsese turns the screws and builds the tension on this claustrophobic island amidst a storm, we watch Leo’s mind unravel.

Howard Hughes The Aviator
DiCaprio again, this time as recluse nutcase Howard Hughes. Afraid of germs and physical contact, this has to be up there as one of the most OCD characters of all time.

Jack Torrance The Shining
Paranoia or just plain madness? Nicholson and Kubrick made quite the team for this one. It received mixed reviews on release but is now regarded as a horror classic.

Douglas Quaid Total Recall
‘If I’m not me, then who the hell am I?’ Great line. As a director, Paul Verhoeven often gets a rough ride from critics, but he’s made some great films. This is probably my favourite.

Edward ‘Brill’ Lyle Enemy of the State
A twitchy, nervous and angry Gene Hackman. What’s not to love? Convinced everyone’s out to get him and it’s Will Smith’s fault, he elevated this movie to something quite compelling.

Jeffrey Goines Twelve Monkeys
Brad Pitt as we’d never seen him before. Unhinged and demented. Fairly unknown at the time yet his performance got him a Best Supporting Actor Academy nomination.

12 monkeys Brad Pitt Bruce Willis

Viva Las… Blackpool!

donkeyblackp460Funny story. A few weeks ago I was catching up with friends and we were discussing that mighty rite of passage; the stag do. Conversation turned to when one of the lads (let’s call him chap 1) might pop the question, given the fact he’d always said his would be Vegas. Another lad (chap 2) – also getting married around the same time – said he was a bit stuck on location. I mean, how can you top Vegas?

I jokingly suggested the Vegas of the UK, Blackpool. Then watched with amusement as the idea took hold. With chap 2 sorted that left chap 1; would he ever pop the question? Then it happened; all the guys at the table simultaneously received a text, ‘Get ready for Vegas!’. Chap 1 had showed his cojones and she’d said yes. Vegas was on, Blackpool was on… all in all, a productive Sunday.

This got me thinking. As pre-trip ‘homework’ we should watch Vegas films to get us fired up. But then, what about Blackpool? And so… to compare and contrast, here’s my selection of film and TV that’s featured these two hedonistic and beguiling locations. Make of them what you will.

LAS VEGAS

That glittering, filthy jewel in the heart of the Nevada desert. The glamour, the lights, the debauchery. Vegas has featured in many films over the years, here’s a few of my favourites.

SwingersSwingers (1996)
Vince Vaughn largely broke onto the scene with this film, written by Jon Favreau (who went on to direct Iron Man) and directed by the under-appreciated Doug Liman (who went on to direct The Bourne Identity). Ultimately it’s a buddy movie about how a guy gets over a break up with a little help from his friends. There’s a lot of these type of films for women but not many for guys. In one part Trent (Vaughn) persuades Mikey (Favreau) to take a trip to Vegas to take his mind off his ex. What follows are some sweet scenes where the two hang out and chat up women, with Mikey failing in increasingly embarrassing ways.

Fear And Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
fear-and-loathing-in-las-vegasBoth Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone tried to get this film off the ground and failed. It took the wonderful weirdness of Terry Gilliam to get it made. As your attorney I advise you to get wasted and watch this film. It’s a melting pot of insanity. Based on a Hunter S. Thompson novel it sees journalist (Johnny Depp) go on a series of psychedelic escapades round Vegas with his attorney (Benicio del Toro). Thompson shaved Depp’s head himself for the role, and that’s among one of the film’s most normal anecdotes.

Knocked Up (2007)
Continuing the drug-addled theme, although not quite to the extent of the last film, this one features scenes with Seth Rogen’s Ben and Paul Rudd’s Pete, as they head to Vegas to escape their women and cut loose. mouthfist1Their idea? Tickets to Cirque du Soleil and a bag of mushrooms. They return to their hotel where Pete takes stock of the room’s chairs and Ben verbally abuses him on his inability to accept love. If you’ve had mushrooms before you’ll agree this is one perfectly observed and hilarious scene.

Casino (1995)
Take a moment to consider the talent: Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Sharon Stone, James Woods, yes, even him. This came five years after Goodfellas, yet to me always felt like a companion piece. Pesci was on searing, frightening form as unhinged gangster Nicky Santoro, casino-1995-10-ga perfect foil to De Niro’s buttoned down casino owner Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein. Throw a wild harridan of a wife, Stone’s Ginger McKenna in the mix with Scorsese at the helm, and you’ve got one of the finest movies about gangsters, gambling and casinos ever made. Looking back, it’s films like this that get me excited about Scorsese’s forthcoming The Wolf of Wall Street.

Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
Remaking the ’60s Rat Pack original is no easy thing. You’re going to need someone with oodles of charisma. Step forward George Clooney. Hell, if you’re going to cast one Mr Charisma, why not two? Step forward Brad Pitt. Need substance as well as style? Step forward director Steven Soderburgh. This film not only looked like an ace in the hole on paper, but boy did it deliver. Oceans-11Bright, breezy, sassy, smart, stylish, and packed with brilliantly written and performed scenes. Sadly the sequels got a touch too smug and self-referential, but that takes nothing away from how fun and watchable the first one was. It holds up to repeat viewings too. A modern classic.

Finally on Vegas, there’s two more I’d like to mention: The Hangover (2009) should get a nod as a top-notch comedy, partly responsible for launching the career of Bradley Cooper. Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls (1995) should also get recognition. A film so clearly revelling in its own gloriously terrible trashiness, you can’t help but love it.

VIVA BLACKPOOL!

Anything the Americans can do, we can do better… ahem. Ok, perhaps what we can do is wholeheartedly embrace our Britishness, with all its glorious quirks and eccentricities. Hopefully summed up in fine fashion with this list.

thetrip_rbrydon_gq_5aug10_bbc_btThe Trip (2010)
Comedy giants Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon wandering around the countryside of Lancashire, Cumbria and Yorkshire, hanging out in restaurants doing impressions galore. What more do you need? Not only are their impersonations quite brilliant, but the chemistry and banter between the two is a joy to watch. This semi-improvised series contained some real gems, such as the Richard Gere scene. ‘I’m listening to you in an interesting way, continue.’

Boy A (2007)
Before Andrew Garfield became everybody’s favourite spider-based superhero, his career largely began with this film, based on a novel of the same name. boy aIt charts the life of Eric Wilson ‘Boy A’ on trial for murder as a young lad. Upon release from prison as a young man he focuses on becoming a better person, but the past comes back to haunt him. The film deals with how society views crime, punishment and rehabilitation, and it’s not a stretch to say it puts you through the emotional wringer. Indeed, Garfield won a Best Actor BAFTA in 2008 for his performance. The full movie’s now on YouTube, watch it here.

Nowhere Boy (2009)
Another British lad-turned-good-in-America. Before Aaron Taylor-Johnson pulled on his lycra and kicked ass with Hit-Girl, he turned in a cracking performance as a young John Lennon, nowhere-boy-lennon_1513287calongside legend-in-her-own-right Kristin Scott Thomas. The film focuses on his teenage years – from 1955-1960 – and begins with a day visit to Blackpool with his mother, Julia, which kick-starts Lennon’s love for rock ‘n’ roll. The rest, as they say, is history. Watch Taylor-Johnson’s thoughts on the film.

So there’s my somewhat epic list. Hopefully there’s some gems in there you haven’t seen, or would like to revisit. I have to say, writing this piece has obviously got me excited about Vegas, but also proud to be British. Some great stuff has come out of Blackpool and, whilst it’s not as glamorous or exotic, I for one will hold my head high on that particular stag do. Viva Blackpool indeed.

Michael Fassbender: The shame of Hollywood

ridley scott cormac mccarthy

What is it with Michael Fassbender? Until a few years ago most of us had never heard of him. Now he seems to be in practically everything. Let’s get this straight, this post isn’t a rant in his general direction, I think he’s a phenomenal actor. It’s just we’re all liable to suffer Fassbender burnout if his output of films continues at the current rate.

michael fassbender in fish tankCast your minds back to 2008, his breakout came playing Bobby Sands in Steve Mcqueen’s, Hunger. This put him on the map. In 2009 he appeared in Fish Tank, a gritty drama set in an English council estate, highly recommended.

He then pretty much stole the show as Lt. Archie Hicox in Inglourious Basterds. Whilst Tarantino does write damn good dialogue and create a seriously tense, yet darkly comic scene – it’s Fassbender that makes this truly special. Watch the flicker of his eyes when he knows his time is up, then switching from German to the King’s English. Classic stuff.

Then in 2010 he appeared in Jonah Hex and Centurion, neither particularly memorable, critically or commercially. However, this didn’t stop the mighty Fassbender. The following year he really began to get into his stride, playing lead roles in Jane Eyre, X Men: First Class, A Dangerous Method, Shame, Haywire and Prometheus.

Let’s just take a step back for a second. All these films in 2011 were both critical and commercial successes. He’s not exactly limited himself in the type of roles he plays either: a Lord in a period drama, a superhero who can manipulate metal with his mind, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung, a sex addicted ad executive, an MI6 agent who gets beaten to hell by a real life mixed martial artist, and an android.

fassbender shameHe’s clearly a highly accomplished, versatile and chameleonic actor, who can convince in a number of roles. Indeed, Director Steve McQueen compared him to Marlon Brando in an interview. High praise, yet justified.

I think he must have realised this avalanche had to stop at some point. IMDb shows us he hasn’t had any films out this year, but has some in the pipeline. He could do with a break as far as I’m concerned. That said, I’m excited to see what he does next. I recently saw Shame, talk about stripping yourself bare as an actor and I don’t mean physically, although I imagine that took a bit of bravery too. An intense performance.

What’s next?
ridley scott cormac mccarthyI must admit, I’m excited about The Counselor. Written by Cormac McCarthy and directed by Ridley Scott, it’s got a cracking cast. As well as Fassbender in the lead role, it also includes: Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz, Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, and – my personal favourite – the legend that is John Leguizamo! Check out more info here. Looks promising, it’ll be good to have him back.

Brilliance of Brad Pitt: his top 10 best performances

fight club brad pittFor this post I’d like to discuss the career and my chosen favourite roles of Mr William Bradley Pitt. But where are some of his recent critically acclaimed films you may ask? Well, I can only list films I’ve seen and I have yet to see Tree of Life, Moneyball and Babel, so cannot include them. From what I’ve heard, they’d probably make my list. Alas, not this time.

  1. Tyler Durden, Fight Club (1999)
    Mesmerising scenes, endlessly quotable dialogue. Became a cult hit largely due to Pitt’s character and performance. Raw, edgy, masculine and totally cool.
  2. Detective David Mills, Se7en (1995)
    Here he convinced as a young, headstrong detective. The conflicting emotions portrayed in the climactic scene were astounding.
  3. Lt. Aldo Raine, Inglourious Basterds (2009)
    Perfectly cast as the leader of the Basterds, with some great comic moments. His Italian scene was a classic.
  4. John Smith, Mr and Mrs Smith (2005)
    Take two of the most attractive and charismatic stars in the world, throw in assassination, action and zinging one liners and what do you get? Pure chemistry.
  5. Louis du point du lac, Interview with the Vampire (1994)
    Beautiful and distant with deep, melancholic eyes, Pitt played Louis the conflicted vampire perfectly. Watch his revenge scene.
  6. Jeffrey Goines, Twelve Monkeys (1995)
    Twitchy, edgy, mischievous and full of mayhem. He was nominated for an Academy Award and won a Golden Globe for his performance in one of Terry Gilliam’s best films.
  7. Jesse James, The Assassination of Jesse James (2007)
    This film divided critics. It’s beautifully shot with a strong, understated performance from Pitt. He gives James a melancholic weariness, which is both troubling and beautiful. The assassination scene will stay with you.
  8. Mickey O’Neil, Snatch (2000)
    With an accent that was impossible to understand, Pitt’s take on the hard-fighting pikey gypsy was truly memorable. Switching effortlessly from wisecracking to intense, unwavering aggression.
  9. Floyd, True Romance (1993)
    A year before – what I consider – his breakout role in Interview with the Vampire, he appeared as a stoner providing comic relief in this Tarantino scripted, Tony Scott directed film. Don’t con-den-sen-in me man!
  10. Jerry Welbach, The Mexican (2001)
    Hapless, romantic, but well-meaning. Pitt gives Jerry a warmth and charm so you root for him throughout. An underrated performance.

In terms of characters, a mixed bunch. For me, Pitt is at his best when combining comedy and intensity. With the exception of Se7en, Interview with the Vampire and Jesse James, the rest of my list are – to a degree – comically driven characters. Or at least, that’s how he played them.

I think what defines a lot of his performances is charisma. Magnetism, sex appeal, the ability to hold the screen – whatever you want to call it, all the best have it. Take his scenes in True Romance as an example. Genius.