We’ve enjoyed Adam McKay’s previous couple of films, The Big Short and Vice, in which he dramatises real events in a pointed, opinionated, satirical manner. He now brings the same attitude to the apocalypse, painting a picture of a world in which an asteroid is headed on a collision course with Earth, poised to end the human race’s existence unless something is done… and nobody cares.
We debate its merits and failures, agreeing that it’s a comedy with few laughs, but José arguing for its place in the national theatre of ideas that cinema has always been in America, and as a response to that question we’ve been hearing asked for several years now – how can you satirise a reality that’s this absurd to begin with? Mike asks why McKay’s previous films worked where this fails, and suggests that it’s an inability to be indirect, to work in poetic ways – something that’s effective when being openly sarcastic, as in The Big Short and Vice, but that falls short in Don’t Look Up‘s appeal for earnestness and depth of character.
An ambitious film, then, attempting to holistically satirise the state of things as they currently stand – but at best, a mixed bag.
Could we have found a Christopher Nolan film that José actually enjoys? We explore the brilliantly imagined and executed Inception, a heist movie set inside the human mind, talking up the intelligence and creativity with which the central concept is used, the elegant and effective intercutting and structure, and the noirish, expressive romance that underpins the entire affair.
We’ve had some disappointments with Interstellar and the DarkKnighttrilogy, but Inception was just the antidote. Boy, are we fired up for Tenet now.
Making spoof Inception trailers was all the rage around the time of its release, and here are the two Mike made:
Mike feared it might be the most tasteless film ever made. José doesn’t look forward to Quentin Tarantino films. But we both came away from this fantastical reimagining of a near-mythological era of Hollywood history having had a great time. Tellingly, for a film that exceeds two and a half hours, we both felt the time fly by.
Tarantino’s love for and expert knowledge of Hollywood and cinema informs all of his work, and arguably not that consequentially – he cribs shots, pastiches genres, and evokes styles and tones specific to cinema, but to debatable significant effect beyond the superficial. But in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (OUATIH for brevity’s sake), the decision to bring this passion to the surface and tell a story directly about Hollywood results in Tarantino’s most meaningful and personal film. What he values is brazenly displayed here, and, Mike suggests, isn’t entirely pleasant to examine. He finds OUATIH initially troubling in this regard – with a day’s reflection on it, he comes to see it as deeply conservative and protective of privilege. In digging this up, we discuss its sexual politics, the way it uses race, and the clash it represents between the old and the new in a rapidly changing 1969 Hollywood. Mike argues that, as in 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino’s revisionism revealingly reflects his fantasy of what an ideal world would look like and contain, and in this case it’s a little uneasy to stomach. He also takes issue with the way the Manson family are used, but not, as he feared, for reasons of taste – Charles Manson wasn’t in Hollywood by chance, he wanted stardom, and for a film in which the desire for and loss of stardom are interests, to show no interest in drawing a thematic link here is more evidence of Tarantino’s retrograde attitude.
The flip side to this coin is that the things Tarantino loves are wonderfully, warmly depicted. OUATIH is as much about television as it is cinema, if not more so, and Tarantino offers imagined and reimagined TV shows of many types in evoking in detail the time and place in which he grew up. To José, about the same age as Tarantino, there abound countless nostalgic pleasures; to Mike, disgustingly born 30 years too late, the film’s enthusiasm and obvious knowledge about its setting rubs off easily. The film easily convinces you to love what it loves, be it silly, overblown action movies; cheesy, overblown TV acting; or Brad Pitt’s Hawaiian shirt, which in one scene blows off.
Speaking of Pitt, José considers this his best performance, one in which he switches from evoking coolness and control to dumb and tripping balls. But for all the little touches and tone he brings to his character, Leonardo DiCaprio brings entirely different registers. His performance is a tour de force, his Rick, a declining Western star, constantly performing, even only to himself at times, and at every moment his emotions and thoughts are crystal clear, even under layer upon layer of performance. DiCaprio practically shapeshifts in sketches depicting Rick’s old movies and television appearances, and offers a sympathetic portrait of a star unable to adapt to his changing environment. It’s a rich, demanding role, and DiCaprio is spellbinding in meeting its challenge.
You’d be doing yourself a disservice missing Once Upon a Time in Hollywood at the cinema. It’s an excited, passionate trip through a Hollywood fantasy, hilarious, light, and thoroughly enjoyable – though, like so many fantasies, its underbelly is dark.
A very interesting article by Mark Olsen on the film´s ending can be found in the LA Times
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
Walking through Birmingham City Centre yesterday, I saw the image pictured above and I thought, ‘Why is Jon Snow advertising Jimmy Choo?’ I at first didn’t realise the ad was for perfume and was picturing Jon Snow with his shaggy hair and his furs — an essential accessory for Castle Black but also such a gorgeous backdrop to his brooding face — now wearing Jimmy Choo heels through the ramparts of The Wall, perhaps hoping the heels would lift him up from the cloud of melancholy that always seems to surround him.
It then struck me that I had referred to the image as Jon Snow rather than Kit Harington. That never happens when I see Leonardo DiCaprio flog TAG Heuer watches: there it’s always Leo. And what ‘Leo’ means has changed and expanded over time. ‘Leo’ is polysemic: he is Romeo, Gatsby, Howard Hughes; he is also the characters he played in Titanic (James Cameron, USA, 1997), Inception (Christopher Nolan, USA, 2010), The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorcese, USA, 2013); he’s a great actor and the biggest box office star of his generation; he’s also someone who shags models, works to enhance social awareness of endangered species and climate change and dances like one’s dad.
Now, I have seen Kit Harington in Pompeii (Paul W. S. Anderson, USA, 2014) and in Spooks: The Greater Good (Bharat Nalluri, UK, 2015) so why does he remain Jon Snow? Does it have to do with the degree of stardom? I don’t think so. Harington is as hot an actor as any at the moment; that’s why he’s had big-budget films built around him; and indeed that’s why he’s being paid to flog perfume by Jimmy Choo. Does it have to do with differences between stardom in one medium or another? Again, in the past I would have said yes. But I don’t think that’s any longer true. James Garner, Matthew McConnaughey, Woody Harrelson, Charlie Sheen and many others since at least the fifties have had enormous success on television without being solely identified with one character. Perhaps it’s process. After all, Clint Eastwood was ‘Rowdy Yates’ throughout America for years before he became ‘Clint Eastwood’.
So, let’s say it’s not about intensity or extent of stardom, or even the medium in which that stardom was first created and took hold; let’s say that it’s merely about polysemy and intensity, about the power and range of different meanings signified by a star sign, such as Kit Harington’s face. But in that case, is Kit Harington ‘The Jimmy Choo Man’ or is it Jon Snow. If the latter, wouldn’t it be appropriate for Harington to hand over some of what he got paid over to whomever owns the image rights to Jon Snow? Isn’t the image for sale on the basis of its meanings here not that of Kit Harington but of Jon Snow? or at best, that of Kit-Harington-as-Jon-Snow? I suppose the two are one in the public imagination. Kit Harington’s face and body is what now embodies Jon Snow; it’s how Jon Snow is signified. In the novels, we each had our own view of him. Now Kit Harington gives flesh to Jon Snow; and we like that embodiment so much that it can be commodified and put for sale; it has an economic value; but until Kit Harington becomes ‘Kit Harington’ does he have the right to commodify Jon Snow and attach those meanings to a scent? Does Kit Harington have the right to get rich from what Jon Snow might mean to an audience? Just a thought.
Gatsby’s lush to look at: a multitrack film with pretty images of old things shown in a new way; beautiful words that a lot of people remember from school; and syncopated sounds that evoke jazz and the twenties but also the current bling-bling life. The film is pastichy, multi-layered, textured. I love the digitized prettyness of it all; the way the pastel-y romantic images meld into one another in a syncopated flow — it’s the way one imagines a Harper Bazaar or Vanity Fair layout from the twenties would look ‘brought to life’.
If the film has any depth, it lies in its surfaces; and what surfaces! – a trail of delicate art nouveau flourishes edging into but giving way to gorgeous art deco geometry. The film is set right on the cusp where one style gives way to another: everything is a treat to the eye — the advertisements for Arrow shirts in Times Square, the digitally constructed Long Island Sound, the parquet flooring, the yellow Duisenberg, the clothes, the jewelry and the most beautiful silver tea-service I’ve ever seen.
It’s a dream setting for that moment in American culture where the Edith Wharton-esque East Coast aristocracy, not too far removed from working grime themselves, are trying to keep at bay the too-fresh flash types bootlegging was bringing into their neighbourhood, the kind wearing raked fedoras and arriving in the shiniest of fast cars — picture James Cagney smashing a grapefruit into the world of The Age of Innocence. Gatsby evokes this clash between the newly acquired and still chaffing refinement of American ‘old money’ brutes and the natural gallantry and elegance of rich moist-eyed gangsters. The filmenwraps Gatsby’s optimism, his sadness and his longing in a glamorous criminality that the film renders as sensational.
Gatsby is full of delights: the best star entrance any contemporary director has ever staged for a male star as of yet; the dishy first look at Daisy (Carey Mulligan); the dizzying fall of the camera from a skyscraper and right into the smiling face of Nick Carroway (Tobey Maguire) — a tour de force of joyful filmmaking; the wondrous staging of the first meeting of Gatsby and Daisy; the car accident; the shooting at the pool; our last look at Gatsby; our first sight of Amitabh Bachan; and, not least, the way the film incorporates words and writing into striking images so that it can then romance the viewer with phrases as well as sights and sounds.
At the heart of the film, however, is Leonardo DiCaprio, the greatest star of his generation at his most, romantic, glamorous and best. No other male movie star has done masculine yearning as well as he does here; and no other director has pictured DiCaprio more beautifully or glamorously than Luhrmann (remember Romeo and Juliette?). This is a great pleasure but it may be part of the problem with the film as well — the way Luhrmann gets Gatsby to look at Daisy is the way the film invites us to gaze at DiCaprio; and shouldn’t the film’s gaze be with Gatsby’s on Daisy? But let’s not quibble, it’s a swoony film. I can’t wait to see it again in 3-D.
Note on 3-D
I did go see The Great Gatsby again in 3-D and it’s the best use of it I’ve seen so far. The way it’s deployed at the very beginning, so as to make us feel as if we’re floating into the centre of the screen and through that golden Art Deco symbol and into the world of the film, is brilliant in terms of concept and in terms of showmanship. The party scenes where all rooms opposite seem to come alive not only with music but also seem to move forward, the equivalent in theatre of breaking the ‘fourth wall, and making us feel that yes, they too can see what’s happening at the party. The way words are used so as to float or hover over the heads of the audience.
This film springs from, is surrounded by, draws inspiration from those words but, importantly, is also NOT those words, they’re just an element here. And of course the 3-D permits a staging in a kind of depth that would have made Bazin feel that movies had come a bit closer to his idea ot Total Cinema. 3-D is normally used as a stunt to offer a cheap thrill (and almost never succeeds) here the thrill aimed for is more complex and more satisfying. Luhrmann stages operatically, all those rustling leaves and billowing curtains to indicate states of mind could have come straight from Sirk. But the aim here is to evoke male yearning and the dream world he makes reality as a setting for a love that ends up never being returned. To help show us how, as Fitzgerald writes ,‘Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further. And one fine morning –’
And how we all ‘beat on, boats against the current, borne back carelessly into the past’.
The 3-D here makes a gorgeous film even more beautiful, a really good one almost great because it embodies, gives metaphorical shape to that green light, that girl that is almost within reach but never within grasp, always and forever tragically unobtainable.. The 3-D is absolutely integral to the aesthetics of this film, it’s in 3-D that this really good film becomes truly great.