The Tarantino device

 

© Colombia Pictures / Bona Film Group

 

Finally, some three-to-four months after it was released in America and Europe, I’ve managed in Sri Lanka to catch up with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the new film – or as it’s more portentously known, the ninth film – directed by Quentin Tarantino.  Before I offer my thoughts on the latest of Mr Tarantino’s opuses, which is set in Los Angeles in 1969, I should warn you that spoilers lie ahead.

 

I felt some trepidation when I sat down to watch Once Upon a Time because I’ve had mixed feelings about Tarantino’s output in the 21st century.  Parts – but certainly not all – of the Kill Bill movies (2003 and 2004) worked for me.  I found the first half of Deathproof (2007) tedious.  While I generally had a good time with Inglourious Basterds (2009) and Django Unchained (2012), both had serious lapses in logic that annoyed me.  In fact, I’ve only unreservedly enjoyed his previous movie, The Hateful Eight (2015), perhaps because it was restricted to one setting, had a relatively small cast and seemed more like a stage play, which actually suited Tarantino’s style.  (While he frequently gets dumped on for being shallow and interested only in trashy movies, Tarantino is really very literary.  He delights in dialogue, writes reams of it for his characters and isn’t afraid to give the actors playing those characters inordinate amounts of time to speak it, long after most other directors would have cut away.)

 

Once Upon a Time is the antithesis of The Hateful Eight.  It sprawls across Hollywood, Los Angeles and beyond and has a cast of thousands – well, hundreds, anyway.  But it worked for me.  Not only is it an exhilarating piece of cinema, but it also takes a dark and dispiriting topic and, through the magic of movies, manages to fashion something touching and even uplifting out of it.

 

As you’d expect from a Tarantino film set in Hollywood, Once Upon a Time is loaded with references to famous people – Joseph Cotton, Patty Duke, Ann-Margaret, Jim Morrison, George Pepard, Telly Savalas, John Sturges and Brian Wilson to name a very few.  But for me the most interesting name-check is that of celebrated science fiction and fantasy author Ray Bradbury.  (Bradbury’s 1951 short-story collection The Illustrated Man was made into an anthology movie in 1969, which in Once Upon a Time is heard being advertised on a car radio.)  Significantly, Bradbury wrote a story in 1965 called The Kilimanjaro Device, about a man who goes off in a time machine to find Ernest Hemmingway before he commits suicide and to rescue him from that sad fate.  Once Upon a Time is basically Tarantino’s Kilimanjaro Device.  It’s a means by which he travels back in time, searches out someone who came to a tragic and premature end and tries to save them.  But though his mission is a serious one, he also has a lot of fun along the way.

 

Fun especially comes from the double-act at the movie’s heart, the characters of Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth played respectively by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt.  Rick is a supposed tough-guy actor whose career reached its peak in the 1950s when he played the hero of a TV western series called Bounty Law.  Since then, he’s been steadily descending the slope on the far side of that peak, taking guest-slots as villain-of-the-week in other stars’ TV shows, a downward trajectory aided by the fact that he’s a pisshead and something of a narcissistic, self-pitying arsehole.  Meanwhile, Cliff is a Hollywood stuntman who’s somehow ended up working for Rick as his driver (Rick was busted for drunk driving), minder, handyman and general dogsbody.  Cliff is the yang to Rick’s yin, being easy-going, amiable and effortlessly cool.  For example, he’s tolerant of and holds his own among the teenaged hippies who’ve become a feature of LA in the past year or so – whereas the prematurely grumpy-old-mannish Rick just hates them.  Actually, such is Cliff’s magnetism that he could have become a star like, or indeed bigger, than Rick, but Tarantino inserts a disturbing piece of backstory explaining why Cliff is persona non grata at the Hollywood studios.

 

I’ve been indifferent to the acting abilities of DiCaprio and Pitt in the past, but they’re both terrific here.  Despite, or possibly because of, his character’s arsehole-ery, DiCaprio manages to make Rick entertaining and even endearing.  Mind you, nothing makes me feel so depressingly old and past it as seeing a film in which the brat from 1997’s Titanic plays a character who’s constantly moaning about being old and past it.  As Cliff, Pitt not only is likeable but invests the character with a surprising vulnerability.  At the film’s climax, we worry about him when he stares danger in the face with his laid-back nonchalance, while the effects of an acid-dipped cigarette he’s just smoked start to kick in.

 

© Colombia Pictures

 

As you might expect from someone so famously addicted to pop culture, Tarantino goes to town in depicting the late-1960s Hollywood milieu that Rick and Cliff inhabit: the music, fashions, hairstyles, cars, building facades, neon signs and, of course, movies.  You could probably watch Once Upon a Time a dozen times and still not catch all the films seen on posters, hoardings and cinema-fronts or mentioned in radio ads and conversations, but here are a few I picked up: Valley of the Dolls (1967), Ice Station Zebra (1968), Romeo and Juliet (1968), The Night They Raided Minsky’s (1968), Lady in Cement (1968) and Krakatoa, East of Java (1969).  Plus we get to see parts of 1968’s The Wrecking Crew, one in a series of 1960s cash-ins on the James Bond craze that featured Dean Martin as a secret agent called Matt Helm.  The Matt Helm movies were set in a cool, groovy, youth-orientated 1960s world in which the middle-aged Dean Martin, try as he might, couldn’t help but look out of his depth – which makes him resemble Rick and Cliff, two slightly over-the-hill blokes trying to survive in a world that’s gone youth-crazy.

 

Then there are the imaginary 1960s movies that Rick supposedly appears in.  We see him torching Nazi officers with a flamethrower (“Anybody order fried sauerkraut?”) in the credibly 1960s-esque World War II actioner 14 Fists of McCluskey.  Later, he jets off to Italy at the behest of his agent (played by Al Pacino) and stars in some fabricated spaghetti westerns like Nebraska Jim (directed by the real-life Sergio Corbucci) and fabricated Euro-spy epics like Operazione Dyn-o-mite (directed by the equally real-life Antonio Margheriti.)  Rick’s Italian career-move, of course, was one that another star of another old TV western series, Clint Eastwood – Rowdy Yates in Rawhide from 1958 to 1966 – had profitably made earlier in the decade.

 

© Renato Casaro / From wiki.tarantino.info

 

And then there’s the cinematic fusion of the real and imaginary, such as when a lachrymose Rick imagines himself starring in a certain, much-loved 1960s war movie.  Apparently, he was in with a shout of getting the lead role when, for a time, Steve McQueen wasn’t interested.

 

Though Once Upon a Time is a cinephile’s dream, I like the fact that it doesn’t forget the larger and less glamorous culture underpinning Hollywood’s moviemaking one – television, which offers performers and crewmembers employment when they aren’t making films.  Indeed, Rick is primarily a TV star rather than a cinematic one and we see much more of him on TV sets than on film ones.  Television helps pay the rent for folk who are both on the way down, like Rick, and on the way up, like Bruce Lee, who starred in the 1966-67 show The Green Hornet and who’s depicted in a flashback meeting and falling out with Cliff.  Lee’s family were upset about his portrayal in Once Upon a Time, which suggests he was an arrogant dickwad.  However, later, we do glimpse him behaving graciously with an actress whom he’s training in the martial arts.

 

Something that surely reinforces Rick’s inferiority complex about being a second-rate TV star rather than a first-rate film star is the fact that his new next-door neighbours on Cielo Drive in Los Angeles’ Benedict Canyon are prestigious up-and-coming movie director Roman Polanski – fresh from making 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby – and his wife, glamorous up-and-coming movie star Sharon Tate.  And it’s here that Once Upon a Time gets its injection of darkness: for we know that in the real world on August 8th, 1969, while Polanski was overseas, Tate and her houseguests were brutally murdered by some followers of crazed hippy-cult leader Charles Manson.  At least, that’s what happened in reality.  With Rick and Cliff on the scene, blundering into events unknowingly, the script of Once Upon a Time diverges somewhat from the proper historical script of 1969.  This is, after all, Tarantino’s Kilimanjaro Device.

 

Manson and his disciples don’t get much screen time.  Manson, played by Damon Herriman, turns up in one short scene and his followers are only in the limelight during an unsettling and claustrophobic sequence set at the Spahn Movie Ranch, which was their hangout at the time and which, as its name indicates, was officially used as a film set, mainly for westerns.  And a few of them obviously feature in the film’s last, brutal 20 minutes.  Manson and co have received much attention in popular culture in the last half-century and, in some misguided quarters, have acquired a morbid retro-cool.  So it’s good that in Once Upon a Time they’re portrayed as a pack of pathetic but dangerous psychos / losers who deserve no empathy whatever.

 

It’s also a relief that Roman Polanski, whom time has proven to be a Grade A creep and who’s played here by Rafal Zawierucha, gets little screen time too.  When we see him briefly, he’s togged out in a silly, velvety, frilly outfit that makes him look like Austen Powers.

 

With Sharon Tate, played by Margot Robbie, Tarantino has been criticised for having her do and say little of consequence.  She watches one of her own movies, she buys a book for her husband – in a bit of cinematic foreshadowing, it’s Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Ubervilles (1891) – she hangs out with her friends, she becomes pregnant and shows off the nursery she’s prepared for the little ‘un, she’s kooky and charming, and that’s it.  Which I think is Tarantino’s point.  She doesn’t have to be or do anything outstanding.  He just wants to show her as an attractive, talented human being.  That’s the way she should be remembered, not as a tragic footnote to the horrible business of the Manson murders.

 

Also earning Tarantino criticism for Once Upon a Time is his being, well, Tarantino-esque.  The film is long (two hours, 40 minutes) and shows his usual disregard for the rules of restrained filmmaking.  Show, don’t tell?  No, Tarantino tells everything, through voiceovers, exposition, montages, flashbacks, fantasy sequences that illustrate what characters are thinking.  Be economical and cut all extraneous fat from the plot?  To hell with that – there are loads of scenes here, of people walking and driving and talking, talking, talking, that do nothing to propel the story forward and that any other director would have saved for the ‘extras’ on the DVD release.

 

But to be honest, I don’t care.  Firstly, while making this film, Tarantino got a lot of toys to play with – he had fake retro-facades fitted over the businesses along Hollywood Boulevard to make it look like 1969 and had a section of the Hollywood Freeway closed off so that he could populate it with vintage automobiles – and I don’t blame him for taking time to show off those toys.  Secondly, we only see the guy once every four years.  And when the portal finally opens again, so to speak, I don’t mind stepping through it and spending the most of three hours exploring the newest part of the Quentin-verse.  Especially not when it’s as textured, fascinating and generally stunning as this.

 

That said, after the film had finished and I found myself back in the real world, as opposed to Tarantino’s world, I felt a certain melancholia when I remembered it’d all been pretend.  Which was also how I used to feel as a kid after I’d finished reading the latest book by Ray Bradbury.

 

© Octavio Terol / From wiki.tarantino.info

 

Crazy evil

 

© SpectreVision / Umedia / Legion M / XYZ Films / RLJE Films

 

Wow.  What a movie Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy (2018) is.  Possibly the most deliriously cinematic film I’ve seen since Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), it ticks all the desired boxes: mayhem, violence, histrionics, revenge, weirdness, warped humour, 1980s-style pulp horror, crazed cultists, psychotic bikers, chainsaws, a doomy score by the late Johann Johannsson and…  Nicolas Cage.

 

Director Cosmatos knows exactly what you want from a Nicolas Cage movie.  You want to see the great man performing with his brakes off and hurtling through proceedings at full throttle.  Cosmatos treats you to this sublime spectacle about an hour into the film’s running time, after Cage has seen his home invaded by murderous villains – a pack of religious cultists and their deranged Hells Angels allies – and seen all the things he holds dear destroyed by them.

 

Left crucified and bound up with barbed wire, he manages to free himself and wanders shell-shocked into his living room, where a TV set is showing a commercial for a brand of cheese that features a hideous-looking puppet / company mascot called the Cheddar Goblin.  “Cheddar Goblin,” squeals a little girl in the commercial just before the goblin does his party piece, which involves vomiting cheese all over the place.  “Did you eat all the macaroni and chee-eese?”

 

Staring at this as if it was some apocalyptic portent displayed in the heavens, Cage intones: “Cheddar Goblin!”  Then, bloodied and clad only in a T-shirt, Y-fronts and some unappealingly mud-soiled tennis socks, he shambles into his bathroom, finds a bottle of vodka in a cupboard, swigs from it heavily whilst sitting on the toilet and bellows, “AAAAAAARGH!” a number of times.  Nicolas Cage-ery doesn’t get any better than this.

 

This is followed by a scene where Cage pays a visit to a trailer-living buddy played by Bill Duke – a welcome appearance by the actor best remembered as a member of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s commando team in Predator (1987) – in order to gather information and procure some lethal weaponry.  When Duke asks him what’s going on, Cage raves: “Jesus freaks…!  They were weirdo, hippie-types…  Whole bunch of ’em.  And then there was some muscle…  It didn’t make any sense.  There were bikers, and gnarly psychos, and…  CRAZY EVIL!”

 

And the rest of the movie is a revenge mission: Nicolas Cage versus Crazy Evil.

 

But to backtrack a little.  The year is 1983 and Cage is a logger with soon-to-be-useful chainsaw skills who lives in a house in the forest – a part of it he’s not cutting down – with his girlfriend, the titular Mandy (Andrea Riseborough).  Mandy is a kooky, slightly-out-of-it chick who’s a heavy metal fan, a fantasy artist and a reader of sword-and-sorcery novels.  In other words, Cage is living the dream of every 1980s adolescent male.  Their idyll doesn’t last, though.  One day, Mandy attracts the attention of a loopy Charles Manson-esque cult leader called Jeremiah (Linus Roache), who’s passing through the area with the half-dozen adherents that make up his sect, the Children of the New Dawn.  Like Manson did in real life, Jeremiah fancies himself as a musician, singer-songwriter and rock star and he likes to subject potential recruits to his music, which is twiddly, folk-inflected, prog-rock, Jethro Tull-type shite.  Presumably, if you can listen to it without collapsing in fits of laughter, you’re in.  I’m surprised there’s as many as six of them.

 

Jeremiah determines to kidnap Mandy but figures his followers are too wimpy to break into her house and take out her lumberjack boyfriend themselves.  So he calls on the services of the Black Skulls.  These are a fearsome chapter of Hells Angels, maddened by bad LSD, active only at night, clad in monstrous amounts of black leather, spikes and chains and responsible for the murders of truckers and prostitutes on the remoter highways.  The Skulls and the Children of the New Dawn make their move and Cage ends up in the bad place he’s in at the film’s midpoint.

 

© SpectreVision / Umedia / Legion M / XYZ Films / RLJE Films

 

To be honest, I think Mandy has a structural problem during its second half when Cage sets out to wreak his vengeance.  Because the Black Skulls are the subsidiary villains and Jeremiah is the Big Bad, he goes after the Skulls first and the Children of the New Dawn second.  However, it’s the Skulls who present the more formidable challenge, whereas the New Dawn members are comparatively easy to take out (a few thrilling minutes of chainsaw-duelling excepted).  As a result, the build-up in the second hour feels back to front because Cage’s confrontation with the Black Skulls should really be the film’s climax.

 

Still, Mandy is a splendid creation.  With its pulpy plot and 1980s setting, it resembles a Quentin Tarantino retro-exploitation epic – some dream sequences done in the style of a Japanese anime are reminiscent of Kill Bill Volume 1 (2003) – but Cosmatos makes it distinctive by giving its cinematography, lighting, soundtrack and general staging a stylised, almost arthouse-movie-like look, sound and feel.  Indeed, by the film’s later stages, the landscapes and skies are so surreally shot that the action seems to no longer take place on earth.  Rather, it’s shifted into the weird and wonderful worlds of Mandy’s fantasy paintings and novels.

 

At the same time, the film pays tribute to 1980s popular cinema in a hundred different ways.  Admittedly, the basic plot seems to be lifted from various 1970s grindhouse classics such as The Last House on the Left (1972) and I Drink Your Blood (1970), but you could argue that for many kids these were part of the 1980s too because it was through the advent of that 1980s institution, the video rental store, that they were introduced to the movies and their unsavoury pleasures.  The blood-soaked, chainsaw-wielding Cage is an even more harassed version of Bruce Campbell’s Ash character in The Evil Dead II (1987), the Cheddar Goblin resembles an inbred member of the title characters in Gremlins (1983) and the Black Skulls are so like the Cenobites in Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (1987) that I’m surprised Barker hasn’t sued.  There’s even a reference to the most famous joke in Crocodile Dundee (1986), though in the context of chainsaws.

 

Meanwhile, connoisseurs of more highbrow 1980s fare will appreciate a death scene that resembles one in the 1980s’ greatest sci-fi movie, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), and the glossy sheen of the visuals and music had me thinking at times of certain Michael Mann movies like The Keep (1983) and Manhunter (1986).  At one point, Mandy even evoked the memory of British cinema’s barmiest visionary, Ken Russell – a hallucinogenic scene where a fire-consumed body, like a post-volcanic-eruption ash statue, slowly breaks apart and blows away in the wind reminded me of similar imagery in Russell’s Altered States (1980).

 

But even if 1980s filmic references aren’t your thing, you’ll surely enjoy Mandy for the barnstorming, no-holds-barred performance of its star.  Yes, strap yourselves in, folks.  This is Nicolas Uncaged.

 

Or as the Cheddar Goblin would say: “It’s gobblin’ good.”

 

© SpectreVision / Umedia / Legion M / XYZ Films / RLJE Films