Dakota Fanning

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

15/09/19

We’re deep into our annual scramble at the Edinburgh Fringe, but there’s a problem. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has opened and I need to see it. Not, I should hasten to add, because I’m a fan of Quentin Tarantino. Quite the opposite. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that – in my opinion – he’s the most overrated film director in history. But, The Cameo is screening the film in 35 mm, using a projector that was made some time in the 1940s and that’s something that the geek in me needs to see. So, a two-hour-and-forty-one minute slot is located in our schedule, and here I sit as the lights dim and the screen kicks into life.

The first thing to say is that the film looks incredible. Light projected through celluloid will always be superior to a digital print. That’s a fact. And I will also add that the film’s musical score is also pretty fantastic, featuring a plethora of sparkling 60s pop classics. But I’m afraid that’s the last good thing I have to say about Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

The plot: actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) was once a big name in Hollywood, due to regular starring roles in Western TV shows, but now his star is beginning to wane. He lives in a big house on Cielo Drive and is driven around by his gofer, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who lives in a lowly caravan a short distance away. Booth too is on his uppers. Once a respected stuntman, he is now reduced to fetching and carrying for Rick. Oh, and the rumour is that back in the day, he murdered his wife. Next door lives the director du jour, Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), fresh off the hit film Rosemary’s Baby, and his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). And meanwhile, up at Spahn’s Ranch, the Manson family are gearing up for some very dark deeds…

Look, the truth is, I really should like this film. The era fascinates me and so does the central story around which this is based. But what I see onscreen is an interminable trudge through a series of over-extended background stories, with Tarantino spending far too long on telling them and being far too pleased with his evocations of 60s cinema and television. Margot Robbie barely gets any lines of dialogue (which sadly enforces Tarantino’s reputation as a misogynist), the great Bruce Lee is depicted as an absolute dick, and a whole troupe of respected actors – Bruce Dern, Dakota Fanning, Timothy Olyphant, Kurt Russell, Al Pacino – are brought onscreen to perform five minutes of pointless ‘acting,’ before being summarily dismissed.

And then there’s that fairytale ending, applauded by many film critics as ‘audacious,’ but which to me seems merely dumb and kind of borderline offensive. Tarantino has previous form here as anyone who saw Inglourious Basterds will know.

Look, the man has many fans and this film has already been widely praised by other critics, so maybe I just need to accept that his style of filmmaking is not for me. But nobody is ever going to convince me that he is a director in control of his own process. Two hours and forty one minutes? Really?

But that 35mm print. Now that is class.

2.5 stars

Philip Caveney

Brimstone

28/09/17

Westerns are a pretty rare species in this day and age, but even rarer is the Dutch Western – indeed, I can’t think of any others before Martin Koolhaven’s Brimstone, a long and rather visceral story that seems to be mostly a mediation on the awful treatment meted out to women in the Old West. With a variety of locations in Europe standing in (pretty convincingly) for America, the film plays audacious tricks with chronology, jumping backwards from time to time to reveal what happened earlier. It finally zooms back to its starting point for a violent conclusion.

When we first meet Liz (Dakota Fanning), she is a married woman with a stepson and a young daughter to care for. She is also mute and we learn, fairly quickly, this is because she has no tongue. When not working alongside her husband raising sheep, she is the local midwife, helping to deliver her neighbour’s children. But the arrival of The Reverend (Guy Pearce) sends her into an evident state of terror. It’s clear from the first sight of him that the two of them have history and that he is there to exact some kind of vengeance. As the film progresses, we learn more about their past… and it’s not an appealing story. This is a relationship forged in hell.

While I take Koolhaven’s point that women were treated abysmally at that time, I think there’s a fine line between the depiction of such brutality and inviting viewers to relish in those depictions. As I watch, women have their tongues cut out. They are whipped, punched, sexually violated and generally abused. Mind you, the violence is not confined to the female characters. One man has his innards cut out and wrapped around his neck. Another is hanged whilst trying to take a crap. This is clearly not The Little House on the Prairie. Pearce’s character must be one of the most irredeemably malevolent creatures ever committed to film; indeed, the film hints at the fact that he might not even be human, but some kind of supernatural being that simply cannot be killed. It also seems to be putting forward the suggestion that religion is at the heart of all evil

If you can get past all the violence, it has to be said that Brimstone is superbly filmed and acted – it’s great to see Dakota Fanning back on screen and brilliantly handling what must be a very demanding role. I also particularly like the evocative score by Junkie XL (who wrote the music for Mad Max: Fury Road). But to be honest, this is a hard film to enjoy – too heavy-handed in its sadistic depictions of brutality for my taste, even if it does feature some powerful scenes. Game of Thrones fans may like to know that it also features Kit Harrington in a minor role as a gunslinger.

Those of you with sensitive stomachs may want to give this one a miss – and if you’re already upset by the sheer volume of violence against women in film, it’s definitely not for you.

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney