Thursday, 15 August 2019



Yes ... that is the title and that is how Quentin Tarantino has punctuated it, with an extraneous ellipsis. Why? Because he's Quentin Tarantino and he can do what he wants, that's why. Usually that's fine, though it leads to a lot of self-indulgence that some people get annoyed with, but personally it's not bothered me that much and I'd sooner watch QT's indulgences than a lot of other peoples', because I like to think I can at least pick up on some of it and I do know of at least some of the movies, posters and TV shows. Maybe I never saw them on first-run theatrical releases (and nor did Quentin, most likely, because he was six at the time) but I do know of the Matt Helm movies, Three In The Attic, CC And Company, Tora! Tora! Tora!, McKenna's Gold, Pendulum, The Illustrated Man and dozens of other old, mostly forgotten movies.

But ... the constant nostalgia callbacks and endless selections from his late 60s vinyl collection actually reached a point where even I was tiring of the nods to period culture, and QT's indulgences only stopped getting in the way of the movie because, really, they ARE the movie. Which is a pity since there's a much more interesting (and much shorter) movie in there that can't get out because of the tapestry of permanent radio chatter and cinema marquees. In fact there are at least two more interesting and shorter movies in there. First off there's the Leonardo DiCaprio thread: Rick Dalton is a one-time TV cowboy star whose hit show ended, reducing him to guest bad guy roles on other peoples' shows: there's a terrific story to be told of a big star struggling to accept that his best years are behind him and having to adapt to the idea of going to Italy to make spaghetti Westerns. Fine. But we don't need to see impeccably staged scenes from these movies and shows at quite such length. There's also an interesting, more comedic character study of Rick's laid-back stunt double and best friend Cliff (Brad Pitt), tooling around 1969 Los Angeles being The Coolest Man In Town (and this is a town with Steve McQueen in it), getting into fights with Bruce Lee and picking up hitchhiking jailbait hippie chicks, and to be honest I could have cheerfully done with a lot more of that movie. Tarantino is a world-builder in the way that Ridley Scott is, and his 1969 LA is as detailed and real as Blade Runner's 2019 LA.

However ... there's a third, much darker and much more problematic story going on, involving actual real historical people rather than figments of Quentin Tarantino's imagination. The fictional Rick Dalton's house just happens to be next door to the real Sharon Tate's, we're in 1969, and that jailbait hippie chick lives at the old Spahn Movie Ranch on a commune run by the sadly non-fictional Charles Manson. Most of Once Upon A Time ... In Hollywood takes place over two days in February 1969 in which Dalton wrestles with his acting career, Tate (Margot Robbie) goes to Hollywood parties with Roman Polanski and blags her way into matinee screenings of her own films, and Cliff tools around being cool and has an uncomfortable encounter with the Mansonites - and it's followed by that night in August when the aforementioned Mansonites turn up looking for "piggies" to kill...

And ... this is where the film suddenly looks like it's going down the same route as Wolves At The Door, in which the actual Manson murders of Sharon Tate and her friends were presented as a slick, glossy piece of popcorn entertainment. Kurt Russell's voiceover is clearly leading the film, minute by minute, to that incident - but then it veers away from established reality: this is Tarantino's own personal alternate universe and, as with Inglourious Basterds, our dimension's known history does not necessarily apply. Once Upon A Time ... does suggest a fairytale, a love story, not a historical document. This last act is also the one with a frankly disturbing level of physical, head-smashing violence: I speak as one who can quite happily marathon the Saw movies over a weekend but even I felt that QT was enjoying it to a worrying degree: it felt sadistic and frankly excessive. Personally I'd have been happier to lose the whole Tate/Manson thread entirely, and concentrate entirely on Leo and Brad: it gets the reality/fantasy divide out of the way and it wouldn't touch on the genuine brutal murders of actual people.

It's ... sprawling, it's narratively messy, it's way too long (like Death Proof, half an hour plus of Tarantino indulging his movie, TV and music passions at Nerd Factor Ten could have been lopped out, tightening up the narrative drastically), it has one scene of genuinely over-the-top physical violence. Yet ... yet ... the period detail is impeccable at least as far as I can tell - if it's isn't genuinely 100% accurate it's close enough, and the clothes and cars and hairstyles and interior design look great. It's also another demonstration that given a proper DP and celluloid, proper cinematography will always be a thousand times better than cold, dead digital. But all that is just surface, while the unexpected cameos and surprise star appearances are just decoration. The incidental pleasures (and there are many) don't entirely make up for the rest of the movie being so all over the place: they go some way, but not enough.

So ... it's a very large and very mixed bag with a lot of stuff in it, some good, a lot not so good, and some of the diamonds you really have to dig for. More discipline and restraint and less geeking out would have helped, but on balance it's one of his less satisfying films. It's not a bad film by any means: there's plenty to enjoy, but he really needs someone standing over him with a baseball bat telling him No every so often. Stay through the end credits for an irrelevant bonus.




There was a time, not too long ago, when a new Brian De Palma film was a special thing. He's one of the Name Directors, one of the "Movie Brats" who made a string of amazing films, some of them among my all-time favourites. Sisters, Carrie, The Fury, Dressed To Kill, Blow Out, Scarface, The Untouchables: visceral, exciting, shocking, made with a love of cinema and what editing, music and the camera can do. Okay, so he missed the coconut a few times; who doesn't? The Bonfire Of The Vanities is a bit of a mess, Wise Guys is awful, Mission To Mars is beautiful and fascinating but doesn't work. But I'll still take one of his silly Hitchcock indulgences like Body Double or Raising Cain over most directors' finest work any day: they may be style-over-content, but what style.

But all good things pass, and there hasn't been a proper genuine BDP movie for quite a while now. Passion was a surprisingly so-so retread of the much better and, weirdly, more De Palma-esque French thriller Love Crime, Redacted was a found-footage assemblage, The Black Dahlia had some moments but nothing more. Sadly: Domino (a title which means nothing) isn't bucking the trend. On the night shift, two Danish cops are called to an apparent domestic incident. One is killed in the ensuing incompetence; the other, Christian (Nikolaj Coster Waldau) vows revenge. But the killer is spirited away by Guy Pearce's CIA agent to infiltrate Isis terror cells and Christian, together with his late partner's secret mistress and fellow cop (Carice Van Houten) gives chase across Europe and into Morocco.

It's a Europudding terrorist thriller with two of the man's signature set-pieces (one of which is thoroughly muffed), and a score by his longtime regular composer Pino Donaggio that only faintly echoes his earlier evocations of Herrmann in exactly the same way that the film only faintly echoes De Palma's earlier evocations of Hitchcock. What's so surprising is that a director, possibly an actual auteur, whose best work was so intensely cinematic should now have made a film that feels like a European TV miniseries: he manages to get a few moments with his trademark split diopters and camera angles but for the most part it's surprisingly flat and visually uninteresting (even the punchy fight scenes are poorly handled). There's no real depth to any of the characters and the villains are the worst kind of cheap, ugly, infidel-slaughtering stereotypes. Only in the set-pieces does the old De Palma seem to stir himself: a rooftop chase that's nowhere near as exciting as it looks in the trailer, and the big bullring climax where he can do some crosscutting and slow-motion. Otherwise it's depressingly uninteresting: you'd think it the work of a young up-and-comer who'd been influenced by Brian De Palma but you'd never think it was the work of the man himself.




Lesbians! Axe murders! Pervy old men! Big-name actresses getting their kit off! Phwoooar! Start your engines, guys! Wahay! Except... no, it's not like that at all. At least except the final reel, when the film completely shifts tone for the actual murders themselves and then goes back to being the sombre, restrained period drama it was for the first hour and a bit. It takes its time to get going (106 leisurely paced minutes) but it's perfectly well done and acted throughout, and the late change of mood does feel odd: either they could have been a little less emphatic about the murder scenes, or they could have gone a touch more Jess Franco for the rest of it.

That odd, slightly jarring swerve into sleazy nudey gore towards the end notwithstanding, Lizzie is a largely respectable retelling of the Lizzie Borden case: August 1892 in Massachusetts, when and where Andrew Borden and his second wife were brutally hatcheted to death. Only one person was tried: his younger Lizzie (Chloe Sevigny) was acquitted, but whilst the world largely concluded that she did it and got away with it (after the jury decided she was too delicate to have committed a crime of such brutality, despite the obvious hefty inheritance motive) the film presents a couple of other suspects for Agatha Christie purposes: his shifty brother, concerned for a substantial inheritance, or the housemaid Bridget (Kristen Stewart with Irish accent) whom Andrew was molesting and who was apparently Lizzie's lover.

For the most part, it's a quiet, serious film, as buttoned-up as their all-covering Victorian era dresses. Beginning with the discovery of the bodies and then flashing back over the six months previous, mainly concerning the developing friendship (and more?) between Lizzie and Bridget, it wraps up with the Most Likely Denouement, in which the two women stripped naked to avoid staining those all-covering dresses with blood splatter and Lizzie energetically delivered the fatal blows to her stepmother and father. As for what really happened: we'll never know, but this dramatisation is generally a solid, well-mounted and non-exploitative drama that crunches its gears a little. Worth a watch.




Unusually, I've watched almost zero new horror movies so far this year. Apart from new cinema releases, most of 2019's DVD and streaming choices have been older titles, non-genre films and date predominantly from the 1950s. But with the FrightFest hoving into view at the end of the month, it seemed like a good idea to ease my way back in to modern genre movies with a few interesting looking rentals. And the first thing to drop through the letterbox is... entirely average, not bad, no masterpiece, competent enough and I guarantee this time next week I'll have forgotten all about it. Which is fine: not every horror movie can be a game-changing masterpiece that redefines the genre for a generation.

Mara is a fairly ordinary horror movie in which police psychologist Olga Kurylenko is called in to assess the sanity of murder suspects when they claim the killings were actually carried out by a demon witch creature named Mara when her victims were suffering from sleep paralysis - a genuine condition that apparently occurs midway between awake and asleep. Is she real? Or is she a combination of urban legend and modern popular culture? And what can Kurylenko do when she finds she's been marked as Mara's next victim?

It would be easy, and frankly unfair to dismiss a movie about sleep paralysis as something that induces precisely that. In fact it's perfectly alright: an unremarkable mid-range DTV horror that does its job efficiently enough and doesn't waste much time about it. Javier Botet gets to do his weird spindly body-twisting again, and there's the twist ending so inevitable it would be more of a shock if they didn't have one. Really, the worst you can say about it is that it doesn't do anything you haven't seen before (it even has the brass nerve to namecheck Freddy Krueger and The X-Files), but it does its recycling solidly enough for a Friday night rental if you keep your expectations modest.




Okay, so I take an extended break from new movies (apart from cinema releases, and even then nowhere near as many of them as usual) and instead concentrate on filling in gaps from the 1950s. I finally fire up my New/Recent rentals queue and this is the first random title to drop through the letterbox. It got added to the list solely because it was one of last year's FrightFest choices (I was watching a decently creepy nun movie in one of the other screens at the time) and to be blunt I think I dodged a massive bullet.

Piercing starts off with what looks like a reasonable horror/thriller set-up: businessman Reed (Christopher Abbott) is off for a meeting but what he's actually planning to do is murder a prostitute. He's got it all worked out: precisely what to say, how much chloroform to use, what to do with the body...except that the girl who arrives (Mia Wasikowska) doesn't oblige by following his scheme, instead quickly raising a host of red flags by mutilating herself in the bathroom with scissors. Or is this all part of her weird scheme?

Okay, maybe I just didn't get Piercing. Maybe there's something in there I missed, like whatever it was supposed to be in the last shot of Haneke's Cache (Hidden) or the whole point of Mulholland Drive. Maybe I and/or the film are too dumb/smart or not dumb/smart enough to work out clearly how much of the film is actually in Reed's (or even Jackie's?) mind. Maybe the soundtrack, needledropped from vintage giallo scores including Tenebrae and The Red Queen Kills Seven Times, is too familiar from its original sources and doesn't belong in a film with only hints of giallo: it's more an oddball dark comedy with more than a touch of Audition about it (no surprise that it's from a novel by the same writer). Maybe it's the elaborate cardboard cityscape lending an unreal Anomalisa air to the whole film.

Whatever the reason, it did nothing but annoy from the start. It's hard to get much of a grip on either of the two characters, one of whom is planning to kill the other (and has probably done it before) while the other has her own brand of unfathomable kookiness. There's also an entirely gratuitous nipple-piercing that's there for no reason beyond justifying the otherwise meaningless title and pushing your yuk buttons at the same time. Worst case scenario is that it's a load of old tripe; best case scenario is that I just didn't get it and still don't.