Category Archives: 2019

2020 Best Picture Nominees – Ranked

Oscars Academy AwardsAround this time every year, I list my picks for the Best Picture nominees (see these links for the 2017, 2018 and 2019 awards). I’ve endured the usual rush to see as many nominated films as possible before the awards. I managed to catch all the Best Picture nominees with about 10 days to go and have seen 90% of the rest of the films nominated in the other major categories.

This year is definitely the populist Oscars, with mainly big tent-pole films nominated for Best Picture, and movie stars nominated in the acting categories. The winners on the night might end up being safe bets, but I’m looking forward to some surprises. Just hopefully not Green Book-levels of surprise.

92nd Academy AwardsAs usual, my annual quest leads me to watch films that might otherwise pass me by. I haven’t seen a new Almodovar film since Broken Embraces (2009), but really enjoyed Pain & Glory (2019), for which Antonio Banderas is nominated for Best Actor. Similarly, I wouldn’t usually have watched The Two Popes, but was blown away by Anthony Hopkins (Best Supporting Actor nominee) and Jonathan Pryce (Best Actor nominee) spending a good portion of the first act speaking a range of languages including Latin! I’d be happy for a win by Adam Driver in the Best Actor category, but the award is Joaquin Phoenix’s to lose.

Harriet (2019) was another film I probably wouldn’t have sought out, but learning of Harriet Tubman’s actions in mid-19th century America was mind-blowing. Just like Sam Mendes’ 1917 (2019), Harriet involves long journeys behind enemy lines. Judy was the dictionary definition of ‘not my sort of film’ but it had its moments, and Renée Zellweger more than deserves her Best Actress nomination. I’m hoping Saoirse Ronan strikes it lucky with her fourth acting nomination, but I think Zellweger’s got it in the bag.

Before we get to my pick of the year’s 10 honourable mentions, here’s my ranking of the Best Picture nominees, from worst to best:

Ford v Ferrari9th: Le Mans ’66 / Ford v Ferrari (James Mangold, 2019)

The natural successor to Green Book (2018), last year’s Best Picture winning film about racism for stupid people, Ford v Ferrari was created in a lab for boomers hungry for a hit of Jeremy Clarkson-era Top Gear. It’s not a terrible film but it feels pedestrian, pun very much intended. Trope after trope after motherfucking trope. Matt Damon and Christian Bale chew the scenery, as Bale’s accent drifts from Birmingham to Yorkshire to Derbyshire (his character, Ken Miles, grew up in Birmingham so he was right first time). Tracy Letts is as fantastic as always as the hard to please Henry Ford II, while Jon Bernthal and Josh Lucas take turns being slimeballs.

Originally shot under the title Le Mans ’66, and released as such in some European countries, the film was retitled Ford v Ferrari in the USA, presumably to prevent Americas from thinking it was a foreign film. It’s unfortunate as Le Mans ’66 is a far better title and the situation reminds me of The Avengers (2012) being retitled Avengers Assemble in a ridiculous attempt to prevent the UK elderly from confusing it with the ‘60s TV show.

The most unpleasant element of James Mangold’s film is its striking lack of diversity in the cast. In another year of #OscarsSoWhite controversy, Ford v Ferrari exists as the whitest picture of them all.

Marriage Story8th: Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach, 2019)

This first of this year’s two nominated films from Netflix, Marriage Story is a retread of the subject matter covered in Robert Benton’s Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979) and Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (2008). Middle-class theatre couple Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) are in the middle of a messy divorce and their young song Henry (Azhy Robertson) is caught in the middle. It feels like a step back for Baumbach, with little of the post-Woody Allen humour that his films are usually known for. It’s surprising that Johansson picked up a Best Actress nomination for her role. She’s usually great, but not here; she seems to recite her lines with no feeling, as though she’s in a school production. Driver earns his Best Actor nomination, as does Laura Dern in the Best Supporting Actress category, but Ray Liotta also shines as the tenacious lawyer butting heads with Dern. A nice little film, but we’ve seen it all before.

The Irishman7th: The Irishman (Martin Scorsese, 2019)

I looked forward to this film as soon as I heard it announced back in 2014. Scorsese directing De Niro, Pacino, Pesci and Keitel, with a supporting cast including Stephen Graham, Ray Romano, Jessie Plemons and Anna Paquin? On paper, it sounds like the perfect film. But it has too much fighting against it.

First of all, the length at 3 hours 29 minutes feels self-indulgent. I was too excited to wait for its release on Netflix and caught the film at my local arthouse cinema. Not surprisingly, a man in the row behind me fell asleep and started snoring in the film’s final act. I can’t really blame him. Goodfellas (1990) was the perfect length at 2 hours 25 minutes, but its spiritual follow-up Casino (1995) felt bloated at 2 hours 58 minutes. The Irishman feels like next-level excess, and while the first act was relatively snappy, the pacing, like Casino before it, severely slowed the film’s second half.

Secondly, the much-admired digital de-aging of the principle cast was too much of a distraction. It felt like the beginning of a technology that will ultimately be perfected, but just like George Lucas’s CGI additions to the Star Wars Special Editions of 1997, it doesn’t quite work yet. Yes, there may be fewer wrinkles on De Niro’s face, but he still has the fuller face of present-day De Niro, and he physically moved like a 75-year old. The one thing to take you out of the picture was his weirdly blue glinting eyes, and you have to wonder if some of these digital effects artists truly understand the value of subtlety and nuance. Most won’t agree, but I thought the de-aging on Will Smith in Ang Lee’s Gemini Man (2019) worked much better.

Technology aside, both Pesci and Pacino were outstanding and truly deserve their Best Supporting Actor nominations. Pacino in particular would have been a worthy contender in the Best Acting category, given his amount of screen-time, but Pesci’s performance was my favourite of the three leads. It’s just a shame that Harvey Keitel’s role was little more than a cameo appearance.

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood6th: Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino, 2019)

I’ve already written at length of my disappointment with Tarantino’s ninth and penultimate film. I don’t think it’s a bad film, it’s just nowhere near the best picture of the year, and nowhere near the best of Tarantino’s work. In fact, I’d put it near the bottom of the list above Death Proof (2007), and Django Unchained (2012), another popular film I didn’t care for.

One of my major dislikes of the film is its casting of Leonardo DiCaprio as the lead protagonist. I have been a fan of Leo, particularly since he smashed that glass ashtray into somebody’s head in The Departed (2006), but in recent years his star has seemed to eclipse his talents.

His performance in Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010) seems to have been the peak of his career, but he’s been playing up to the camera ever since, particularly in J. Edgar (2011), Django Unchained and The Wolf Of Wall Street (2013). When he tones it down, he’s great, but in Tarantino’s latest, he’s a burden. His character Rick Dalton shares a scene in the middle of the picture with the 8-year old Julia Butters, and that one particular moment slowed everything down so much, I couldn’t get back on board.

The latter half of Tarantino’s career has seen the director focus on revisionist history. First, we had Jews murdering Hitler in Inglourious Basterds (2009), followed by a black slave rising up against his former owners in Django Unchained. Now we have Tarantino applying that same logic to the horrible story of Sharon Tate. But for all its well-meaning camaraderie with Roman Polanski (in my film, brother, she lives to see another day), the fairy-tale ending comes off as a failure to give us the nuts and bolts of what happened. And that’s something I never thought the director of Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994) would shy away from.

I still stand by my alternate ending: the crane shot showing Dalton and Tate meeting on the driveway would pan back across the house…to show another black cruiser full of Manson children slowly edging up the drive, suggesting that fate cannot be stopped.

Little Women5th: Little Women (Greta Gerwig, 2019)

If there was an Academy Award for Best Cast, this film would have easily won. And they’re all brilliant: Meryl Streep passing on her acting crown to Saoirse Ronan (aged 25 with four Oscar nominations under her belt), Emma Watson now almost unrecognizable from the world of Harry Potter,  Timothée Chalamet and Forence Pugh continuing their world dominance, Laura Dern adding to her late-career renaissance, and terrific turns from Tracy Letts, Chris Cooper, Bob Odenkirk and James Norton.

The trouble is that Greta Gerwig’s second feature feels a tad overly-ambitious. I spotted a couple of minor continuity errors, which could easily have been remedied in the edit, and the cinematography was all over the place. There was a particular shot early in the film, showing Jo (Ronan) writing in her New York lodgings, and she was ever so slightly out of focus (and not intentionally either). Gerwig’s aim is admirable, but the nuts and bolts of it are just not up to Best Picture standards (nor Best Director standards, I’m sorry to say).

The script was great. Pugh’s line ‘Jo, your one beauty!’ really made me chuckle, and I really need to incorporate ‘Capital!’ and ‘Cristopher Columbus!’ into my range of exclamations. But despite the fizz of the dialogue, the narrative was overly clunky. The time jumps were handled poorly, and I found myself rushing to catch up (not being familiar with the source material didn’t help). Being an adaptation of a literary classic, the film felt a lot less personal than Gerwig’s debut Lady Bird (2017), and while I was hoping she might return with something truly original with her next project, she’s announced to be directing a live-action film in the world of Barbie.

Joker4th: Joker (Todd Phillips, 2019)

Another film I was looking forward to, since it was initially linked to Martin Scorsese producing. He has since distanced himself from the project, comparing comic-book superhero films to theme park rides, but Todd Phillips’ eventual film is steeped in references to Scorsese’s work, notably Taxi Driver (1976) and King Of Comedy (1983). Weirdly, it’s more of a homage to late-1970s American cinema than the supervillain origin story it should be.

I didn’t particularly like some of the narrative choices in the script, co-written by Phillips with Scott Silver. The lead character’s change of name from Jack Napier to Arthur Fleck was unnecessary, and the connection between Fleck and Bruce Wayne felt forced, particularly in the wake of Sam Mendes’ SPECTRE (2015) pulling the same trick in the James Bond universe.

Heath & Joaquin
But Joaquin Phoenix’s central performance is deserving of all the accolades that come his way. As bat-shit crazy as Heath Ledger’s interpretation of the role in The Dark Knight (2008), it would be fitting if the Oscar went to Phoenix. While many actors and actresses have been nominated for playing the same character, only one such instance has led to a winning pair – Marlon Brando won Best Actor for playing Vito Corleone in The Godfather (1972) while Robert De Niro won Best Supporting Actor for the same role two years later in The Godfather Part II (1974).

Jojo Rabbit3rd: Jojo Rabbit (Taika Waititi, 2019)

Waititi’s sixth feature, like many of his films, was marketed as a screwball comedy. The trailer couldn’t look any more like a Wes Anderson film if it tried, and the marketing team even spelled out that it was ‘an anti-hate satire’ just in case any Americans took it too seriously. But just like Hunt For The Wilderpeople (2016), What We Do In The Shadows (2014) and Boy (2010), Waititi’s new picture is a slow-burning character piece with a huge, huge heart.

Thankfully, almost everything revealed in the trailer occurs in the first ten minutes of the film, and rather than the outdoors comedy we’re promised, the film mainly takes place within the confines of
the lead character’s home. Johannes ‘Jojo’ Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) is a ten-year-old Hitler fanatic, living alone with his doting mother (Scarlett Johansson) and struggling to fit in in his local chapter of the Hitler Youth.

The comic relief mainly comes from Waititi’s deliciously camp turn as Jojo’s imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler, and it’s this lightness of touch that has attracted the film’s only criticism. In much the same way Steven Spielberg was hounded by critics for treating Nazis as comic fodder in the Indiana Jones films, Waititi too has face similar accusations. It must be difficult to not understand satire. God knows what these dunderheads would have thought of The Great Dictator (1940).

Featuring an excellent Wes Anderson-level ensemble cast of Sam Rockwell, Alfie Allen, Rebel Wilson and Stephen Merchant, the film is carried by Roman Griffin Davis’ central performance and New Zealander Thomasin McKenzie’s turn as the mysterious Elsa Korr. McKenzie landed onto everybody’s radar’s in 2018’s Leave No Trace, but her turn in Jojo Rabbit suggests she’s still on course for bigger, brighter things.

The cinema got a little dusty in the film’s final scene, and the inclusion of that song just floored me. I wish that Waititi had given us a longer sequence – hell, I’d forgive him for turning it into a full song and dance number – but the director’s deft touch holds the film back from oversentimentality and mawkishness. Those last shots intercutting between Davis and McKenzie are cinematic gold. Bravo!

Parasite2nd: Parasite (Bong Joon-Ho, 2019)

Having recently seen Bong Joon-Ho’s breakthrough Memories Of Murder (2003), I’ve been itching to see Parasite. Snowpiercer (2013) had some interesting ideas, but I never imagined the director of that high-concept thriller would be capable of this level of genius filmmaking.

Casual viewers may be put off by Parasite’s opening scenes, which come off as a run of the mill family drama, but most foreign-language films don’t abide by Hollywood conventions. The drama quickly turns into a slow-burning thriller, with dark, dark shades of black humour until the rug is pulled from under us and it’s suddenly a film about something else. To describe the film any further would give too much away.

Last year it became the first Korean film to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes and stands a good chance of becoming the first foreign-language film to win the Best Picture Oscar. My only reservations were in the denouement of the film, which felt disappointingly weak after such a thrill-ride of a second and third act.

19171st: 1917 (Sam Mendes, 2019)

Mark Kermode calls cinema an empathy machine, and that description is none more fitting than with this masterpiece from Sam Mendes. Fresh from his double-dip Bond adventure (2012’s Skyfall and 2015’s SPECTRE), Mendes has co-written the screenplay, which he describes as ‘enlarged’ from his Grandfather’s experiences in the first World War.

The last big-budget war film from a big-name director, Christopher Nolan’s emotionally distant Dunkirk (2017), left me cold and wanting for human interaction. It was visually stunning and unbelievably tense but lacked any emotional depth given its scarcity of dialogue and arms-length characterisation.

1917 may be from a different war, but the short script and bleakness of the situation feels very similar to Nolan’s film. Much has been written about the film’s one continuous shot (effectively a series of long takes stitched together), and while it’s hardly an original idea – Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) set the standard and Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002) was the most recent example – Mendes has confirmed that the idea felt like a natural progression from the Mexico City pre-credits sequence in SPECTRE, also shot in ‘one-take’.

It’s not just a technical achievement though. Mendes, aided by master cinematographer Roger Deakins, uses the limitations of the one-shot device to put us right in the middle of the action. The camera doesn’t stray too far from the faces of our two protagonists, the plucky, happy-go-lucky Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and the more reticent Schofield (George MacKay). It’s a framing device similar to László Nemes’ Son Of Saul (2015), the Auschwitz-set Best Foreign Language winner. But where Son Of Saul was shot on long lenses, with the frame barely leaving the shoulder and head of the titular character, to shield the viewer from the horror of the events that are unfolding around him, 1917 takes a different approach. We get sweeping vistas, of no-man’s land or the deserted fields of France, but the camera always comes back to the rising terror on the faces of our two leads.

George MacKay

How George MacKay was overlooked for an acting nomination, I’m not sure. Not famous enough maybe? The Best Actor nominees this year all seem to be movie stars – Antonio Banderas, Leonard DiCaprio, Adam Driver, Joaquin Phoenix, Jonathan Pryce – but I’d put MacKay ahead of Banderas and Pryce’s more understated performances, and miles ahead of DiCaprio’s typically gurning turn.

Hopefully Deakins wins his second Oscar (after 2017’s Blade Runner 2049) for the cinematography, if only for the night-time sequence in the fire-lit French town. This is also the moment Thomas Newman’s score spills over into a glorious crescendo. Having coasted along with his two Bond scores for Mendes, Newman seems to have hit his stride again with his trademark ethereal pathos.

1917 is brave filmmaking dealing with the very subject of bravery. I’d be thrilled if Parasite or Jojo Rabbit won Best Picture, but Mendes’ film really deserves it. The only film that would come close to a repeat of last year’s Green Book farce would be Ford v Ferrari, and I think Marriage Story is only in there to make up the numbers. The rule-change in 2009, to at least five Best Picture nominees and no more than ten, feels silly this year with so many mediocre films propping up the bottom of the list.

* As a special postscript, I’d like to laugh in the face of all the Marvel fans who campaigned over the last year to get Robert Downey Jr. a Best Actor nomination for his turn as, well, Robert Downey Jr. in the record-breaking Avengers: Endgame. Didn’t quite work out, did it? *
Honourable Mentions

Here are my other favourite (eligible) films from the year (in alphabetical order):

Hon Mentions 1
Apollo 11 (Todd Douglas Miller, 2019) – An absolute knock-out documentary in terms of visuals (NASA have been sitting on crystal-clear 70mm footage of the mission all this time) and sound (composer Matt Morton wrote and recorded the soundtrack on period-era synths). It’s a film and a soundtrack that builds and builds in tension, with disaster lurking around every corner, to celebrate mankind’s greatest achievement. Just spellbinding. This year’s answer to 2018’s Free Solo.

Blinded By The Light (Gurinder Chadha,2019) – We’re really into boomer rock biopic territory now: Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), Rocketman (2019) and related films like Danny Boyle’s Yesterday (2019). This Bruce Springsteen-centred film has been my favourite pick of the bunch so far. Part coming-of-age / immigration drama and part musical, it tells the true story of Javed, a Pakistani schoolboy growing up in Luton, who finds unexpected solace in the music of The Boss. Inspired by the book Greetings from Bury Park: Race, Religion and Rock N’ Roll by Sarfraz Manzoor, the film’s script was co-written by Manzoor, with director Chadha and Paul Mayeda Berges. Joyous!

Booksmart (Olivia Wilde, 2019) – A teen-comedy, pitched as the female equivalent of the genre’s gold standard Superbad (2007) from actor / first-time director Olivia Wilde. The Superbad comparisons are hard to shake off – one of the leads, Beanie Feldstein, is the sister of Jonah Hill – but they make it their own film. A brilliant debut by Wilde, with nice supporting turns by Jason Sudeikis, Lisa Kudrow, Will Forte and Billie Lourd, but it’s the central performance by Kaitlyn Dever which steals the show.

Hon Mentions 2
Diego Maradona
(Asif Kapadia, 2019) – The master documentary filmmaker behind Senna (2010) and Amy (2015) turns his focus this time onto a subject who is still very much alive and kicking. This film was a hard watch, considering that I associate Maradona with the devil for breaking my 7-year old heart back in 1986. It could have been a character assassination of the Argentinian, but Kapadia wrong-foots the audience and delivers a stunningly balanced approach celebrating both his stratospheric rise, and his stratospheric downfall at the hands of the Naples mafia (and just a little bit of cocaine). Antonio Pinto’s Latin American-infused score was perhaps my favourite of the year, the perfect accompaniment to a film almost made me feel sorry for Maradona. Almost.

Maiden (Alex Holmes, 2019) – I love a good documentary, especially if it covers a subject I don’t know anything about. Sailing, and in particular women’s sailing, is a major blind-spot of mine, and so I welcomed this film from Alex Holmes. Telling the story of Tracy Edwards and the crew of the first all-woman crew in the Whitbread Round The World Race in 1989-1990, it’s a traditional documentary, narrated by talking heads with the crew themselves. A fascinating peek into a world I knew nothing about.

The Peanut Butter Falcon (Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, 2019) – Just a sweet little movie. Shia LaBeouf has been criticised in the past for not picking his roles very well, and hopefully this is the start of a minor renaissance for him. He plays ne’er-do-well Tyler, a fisherman who befriends Zak, a young man with Downs Syndrome, who is on the run from the retirement home where he lives. With an interesting supporting cast – Dakota Johnson, Thomas Haden Church, Bruce Dern and Jon Bernthal – I was most delighted to see former WWF superstar Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts in a small but pivotal role.

Hon Mentions 3
Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story By Martin Scorsese
(Martin Scorsese, 2019) – I’m not the biggest Dylan-head, but I really enjoyed this documentary from Scorsese. This period of Dylan’s career is another black hole for me, so it made for a revealing watch. Joan Baez telling tales about disguising herself as Dylan, Joni Mitchell playing an embryonic version of Coyote, and a post-Bowie Mick Ronson rocking out on stage. Just a blast.

Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise Of Skywalker (J.J. Abrams, 2019) – Finally, the nine films in the Skywalker saga have come to an end. I’m not sure how history will view these three latest sequels. I enjoyed all three, but some people just can’t take them for what they are. Richard Marquand’s Return Of The Jedi (1983) is a weak film compared to its two predecessors, but I enjoy it just as much. Abrams’ new trilogy is the same – it has some stunning high points and some unfortunate lows (with Carrie Fisher’s premature death being the absolute worst).

Hon Mentions 4
Uncut Gems
(Josh & Benny Safdie, 2019) – A headache-inducing film about a compulsive gambler, with an against-type turn by Adam Sandler. Paul Tomas Anderson-levels of anxiety are mixed with Scorsese-esque naturalistic dialogue, under a weirdly hypnotic synth score by Daniel Lopatin. Uncut Gems is one of those films that you must see but will probably never want to revisit.

Wild Rose (Tom Harper, 2018) – While the rest of the world continues to coo over Saoirse Ronan, one of Ireland’s other exports remains relatively unnoticed. But not for long. Jessie Buckley’s first role in the largely unseen Beast (2017) showed a captivating actress with heaps of potential. She followed this with a key role in the Chernobyl (2019) TV mini-series, a small role opposite Renée Zellweger in Judy, and is next cast in the upcoming fourth series of Fargo.  In Wild Rose, she plays eternal fuck-up Rose-Lynn Harlan, a country-singing single mother from Glasgow. Beast is a better film but her performance in Wild Rose suggests Saoirse Ronan might not be the only Irish girl winning Oscars in the near future.

My Picks For The 24

Best Picture Green BookFinally, here are my picks for what the Academy will actually vote for on the night. I didn’t do too well last year, only picking 10 (42%) of the 24 winners, so I’ll be happy to crack 50% this year.

Best Picture: 1917

Best Director:
Bong Joon-Ho (Parasite)

Best Actor:
Joaquin Phoenix (Joker)

Best Actress: Renée Zellweger (Judy)

Best Supporting Actor: Al Pacino (The Irishman)

Best Supporting Actress: Laura Dern (Marriage Story)

Best Original Screenplay: Knives Out – Rian Johnson

Best Adapted Screenplay: Jojo Rabbit – Taika Waititi

Best Animated Feature Film:
Missing Link

Best Foreign Language Film: Parasite

Best Documentary – Feature: American Factory

Best Documentary – Short Subject: Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)

Best Live Action Short Film:
Nefta Football Club

Best Animated Short Film: Kitbull

Best Original Score: Joker – Hildur Guðnadóttir

Best Original Song: I’m Gonna Love Me Again (Rocketman) – Elton John & Bernie Taupin

Best Sound Editing:
Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise Of Skywalker

Best Sound Mixing:
Ford v Ferrari

Best Production Design: Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

Best Cinematography: Roger Deakins (1917)

Best Makeup And Hairstyling: Bombshell

Best Costume Design: Little Women

Best Film Editing: Parasite

Best Visual Effects: Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise Of Skywalker

Rocks In The Attic #817: Matt Morton – ‘Apollo 11 (O.S.T.)’ (2019)

RITA#817On the last day of the year, I thought I’d post about my favourite release of 2019. I don’t tend to buy much in the way of new music – I’m so out of touch, the list of food-trucks at Auckland’s Laneways festival always catches me out as they could be band names for all I know – but I do buy lots of soundtracks, for films both old and new.

For me, 2019 was a year punctuated by two huge let-downs. First we had Ari Aster’s follow-up to his wonderful 2018 debut Hereditary (or should that be Her-head-hit-a-tree?). Midsommar should have been a sure-fire hit. Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor and Will Poulter star as a group of American college students who take a trip to the northern Swedish countryside with their Scandinavian college friend. Aster then follows the script of The Wicker Man with unapologetic audacity, closely following the major plot-points in everything but location.

RITA#817aIt looked great, and sounded even greater with a wonderful score by Bobby Krlic, but the film’s unoriginality is just unforgivable. I guess it must be okay to steal so shamelessly from a 46-year old film as most of your target millennial audience won’t have seen it, and any older viewers might not remember it?

The other let-down was Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, Tarantino’s ninth and his weakest offering since Death Proof. I’ve already written about that disappointment, and I’m sorry to say that a second viewing made me dislike it even more.

Instead, I found greater enjoyment in two documentaries: Todd Douglas Miller’s Apollo 11 and Asif Kapadia’s Diego Maradona. Both films offer a fresh, new perspective on their subjects and both demand repeat viewings. I’m hoping Antônio Pinto’s score to the Maradona film will eventually see the light of day on vinyl, it’s a genuinely beautiful accompaniment that works as a piece on its own (I’ve been thrashing it on Spotify ever since I saw the film). The strength of the film can be demonstrated by the fact that it almost made me feel sorry for Maradona. Almost.

RITA#817b

The score to Apollo 11 is similarly fantastic. Miller’s film eschews the standard talking head interviews that slow down most documentaries, and ditches the concept of a narration track of any kind. Aside from Matt Morton’s score, all sound contained within the picture is real-life diegetic sound. All that is left is just chatter on the mission’s microphones, and background sound.

About 30 seconds into the film, I had to check on IMDb what we were watching. Was this a documentary with computer-generated effects shots to bolster the launch and space sequences? No, but it looked like it. The images were just too good. The opening shots of the film, showing the rocket on the launch-pad at the Kennedy Space Centre in Cape Canaveral look uncannily like CGI but they’re not. It’s in fact footage shot by NASA on huge 70mm film-stock (essentially the size format IMAX screens were built for), and mostly unreleased by the space administration until now.

RITA#817c
My only regret is not seeing it on an IMAX screen as that would have been superb. I’m hoping it will continue to play on an occasional basis, given the film’s timelessness.

As iconic as the events of the film are – spoiler alert: they land on the moon, Michael Collins goes for a ride around the moon, picks up Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, and they fly safely back home – the film’s real power for me is in its soundtrack. Composer Matt Morton went to great lengths to only use period-era analogue synthesisers (the liner notes state: ‘All instruments and effects existed at the time of the Apollo 11 mission’), and so the music sounds just as ‘1969’ as the action on screen. It’s a wonderful score, building and building in tension as the three-man crew pass each milestone in their journey.

2019 was a tough year for me in both health and work, and also for our country with two international-scale tragedies and a shocking murder-trial. And so it isn’t hard to understand why I’ve taken so much joy from two films focusing on former glories. Here’s to a better 2020, hopefully without that idiot in the White House.

Hit: The Burdens And The Hopes

Hidden Gem: Liftoff And Staging

RITA#817d

Rocks In The Attic #812: Various Artists – ‘Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (O.S.T.)’ (2019)

WARNING! SPOILERS!

RITA#812Half-way through Quentin Tarantino’s ninth picture, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, Brad Pitt’s character, stuntman Cliff Booth, visits Spahn Ranch. Reminiscent of the ‘glass of milk’ scene in Inglourious Basterds, or that same film’s later bar scene, it’s a deliciously tense moment in an otherwise bloated film. Booth suspects that there’s something amiss about the group of hippies living at the ranch owned by his former colleague. Unlike the audience, he doesn’t have hindsight of the Manson family, but still feels that something isn’t quite right.

He insists of seeing his former colleague, George Spahn, to ensure he’s not being taken advantage of, or worse. After much obstruction by the Mansons, Booth finally speaks to a grouchy Spahn who insists that everything is okay. He might be being taken advantage of, but seems relatively content about it.

And so, a wonderfully tense fifteen-minute scene ends in an anti-climax; a metaphor for the film itself.

RITA#812aOnce Upon A Time In Hollywood isn’t a bad film, but it’s a huge disappointment. It’s up there with Ari Aster’s unapologetic ­Wicker Man­ rip-off, Midsommar, as the biggest let-down of 2019. To say that four years ago, I met Tarantino and practically begged him not to retire after his tenth film, I should have spent that precious time asking him to be more careful with #9 and #10.

People tend to forget that what originally made Tarantino’s films so interesting is that they normalised dialogue between henchman, bad guys and crooks. They did horrible things but they still had small, human problems. Thirty years after the 1-2-3 success of Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown and we’re faced with a picture that, despite its depiction of infamous events, is just dull. That throwaway book-reading scene between Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton and his 12-year old co-star is painfully dull.

In fact, the whole DiCaprio storyline is boring. Death Proof levels of boring.

My main issue with the film though, is its skirting with reality and its subsequent failure to end with the Sharon Tate murders. Tarantino has played with revisionist history before: a Jew murdering Hitler and other high-ranking Nazis in Basterds, and Jamie Foxx’s slave rising up to avenge his former slave-owners in Django Unchained. Here though, he kind of gets away with it because, as the film’s title suggest, it’s a fairytale. A happy ending. An allegory for Hollywood itself.

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My preferred ending to the picture would have kept the meeting of Dalton, Sebring and Tate on the driveway, but the crane shot would have swept back to the open gate to reveal another car full of Manson children, implying that fate cannot be stopped.

I’m probably more disappointed about what the film could have been rather than how it turned out. Tarantino directing a period film in 1960s Los Angeles sounds unbeatable. First, we get that classic period-era Columbia Pictures studio ident at the top of the film, to set the scene. Then things start to break down.

Five minutes in, we get a blast of narration from Kurt Russell’s Randy Miller: ‘That’s a fucking lie!’ Do we get any more? Yes, but much, much later in the film (following Dalton and Booth’s return from Italy). Cliff Booth has a clunky flashback as he fixes the aerial on Dalton’s roof. Do we get any more flashbacks? Nope. And those crazy cuts – hat on, hat off – in the first scene between Dalton and Timothy Olyphant’s James Stacy? What the hell is going on with these half-hearted narrative devices?

The script across the film’s opening scenes – Booth explaining in the car who he is to Dalton, and Dalton explaining who Roman Polanski is – feels very clunky, like a first draft even. I did chuckle at the random line of dialogue: ‘Don’t cry in front of Mexicans’, which sounds like the oddest piece of racist advice from Brad Pitt’s character.

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And to expand on the issues with Pitt’s Cliff Booth, where do I start? The implication that he killed his wife, and the insinuation that she deserved it for being a nag, is just awful. As is the portrayal of Bruce Lee in the next scene. After two viewings, I still can’t understand why Bruce Lee is a character in this film. Is Tarantino making an example of him because he’s a mainstream kung-fu star, and Tarantino prefers more obscure films from that genre? What else could it be? I don’t think it’s particularly racist, but it’s definitely disrespectful, and more importantly, downright lazy.

I do love the soundtrack though, with the radio station framing – Boss Radio featuring Humble Harve and the Real Don Steele – harking back to Steve Wright’s radio announcements on the Reservoir Dogs soundtrack. It’s odd that the vinyl version of the soundtrack retains that compressed radio sound for the songs introduced by the Boss radio DJs, but the digital version I’ve heard on Spotify abandons this and plays the standard versions.

My only gripe with the soundtrack is the inclusion of Simon & Garfunkel’s Mrs. Robinson, a song that just feels too popular, too obvious, to be in a Tarantino picture. I did hear Tarantino explain in an interview with Edith Bowman, for her excellent Soundtracking podcast, that in fact the song choices were made for him. Looking for archival recordings of radio stations from the time, they found that somebody had recorded audio from Boss Radio in 1969 and he used this as the basis for sides A and C of the eventual soundtrack release. If songs weren’t played during this found recording, he didn’t put them on the soundtrack.

Overall, I expect better from Tarantino because he’s shown how strong a filmmaker he is. Man, I hope film number ten is a vast improvement on this let-down.

Hit: Mrs. Robinson – Simon & Garfunkel

Hidden Gem: You Keep Me Hangin’ On (Quentin Tarantino Edit) – Vanilla Fudge

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Rocks In The Attic #793: The Beatles – ‘Abbey Road (3LP Anniversary Edition)’ (1969/2019)

RITA#793Christmas continues to come twice a year for fans of the Fab Four, with 2019’s banner Beatles release. 50 years and a day after its original release on 26th September 1969, Abbey Road  has been given the same makeover afforded to last year’s White Album anniversary set.

Packaged in a similar sized box to the White Album / Esher Demos package, the set is comprised of the new 2019 mix by Giles Martin (with credit given to mix engineer Sam Okell on the hype sticker) in its own sleeve, two LPs of outtakes from the sessions presented in an ‘alternate’ cover sleeve, and a four-panel booklet of liner notes, featuring forewords by Paul McCartney and Giles Martin.

It’s a wonderful package down to the smallest details. The blue font used on the hype sticker and in the ‘3LP Anniversary Edition’ labelling on the side of the box echoes the blue sky that takes up the negative space on the album’s world-famous cover shot. Or is it the blue of the dress worn by the girl blurrily walking out of shot on the rear cover? Maybe it’s just the same blue as gravedigger George’s double-denim?
RITA#793aAs with the White Album’s 2018 mix, the 2019 mix of Abbey Road is intimately revealing. Casual listeners probably won’t be able to spot the changes, but if you grew up listening to the album on headphones during your formative years, the differences are massive. Following on from Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin’s remastering campaigns in recent years, the key words here are clarity and presence. It isn’t merely a money-grab release by simply making things LOUDER, although I’m sure the EMI accountants will all be in line for a sizable end-of-year bonus. Thankfully, Giles Martin and team have done more than just ‘make ten louder and make ten be the top number and make that a little louder.’

John’s vocal on the first stop in Come Together – ‘got to be a joker, he just do what he please’ – reveals the first tweak. You can hear him bite down – or hold back? – on that last word even harder than before. George’s jangly guitar on Octopus’s Garden is even janglier, strengthening the song’s Country credentials. And Ringo’s fills, particularly on The End, have more weight in them. ‘The sound was the result of having new calfskin drum heads,’ Ringo explains in Kevin Howlett’s liner notes. ‘There’s a lot of tom-tom work on that record. I got the new heads and I naturally used them a lot – they were so great.’

The biggest change in the remix however is in the bottom end. Paul’s bass is pushed further into the front of this mix – if such a thing is possible given how front and centre it already was in the original 1969 mix. This is a good thing; the bass playing throughout the album represents the peak of McCartney’s playing, and his fluid, walking basslines are one of the album’s key ingredients.

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In terms of bonus content, it feels like a missed opportunity that Martin Jr. wasn’t tasked to produce a mono mix of the album. With the White Album being the last Beatles record to enjoy a mono mix upon release, Yellow Submarine, Abbey Road and Let It Be have only been available in stereo, the decade’s eventual winning format (even though Martin Sr. and team were still mixing the singles in mono in 1969, with Get Back appearing in April of that year as the band’s final mono single in the UK). If mono mixes of Yellow Submarine, Abbey Road and Let It Be don’t already exist somewhere in the archive, even as reference mixes, then it seems a missed opportunity to not hand this challenge to Martin The Younger. Of course, nobody really needs a mono mix of these albums, but given his achievements, from 2006’s Love soundtrack album of the Cirque du Soleil show, to the remixes of Pepper, the White Album and now Abbey Road, he’s the perfect candidate to do something a little different sonically to compliment the respective stereo mixes.

What we do get as extras are still brilliant: twenty-three tracks of demos, outtakes and orchestral instrumentals. As with the outtakes in last year’s White Album set, some have seen the light of day in one form or another across the Anthology project, but the vast majority have been officially unreleased until now.

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The studio chatter preceding the first track – a run-through of I Want You (She’s So Heavy) at Trident studios – offers a glimpse at the joys that lie ahead:

“Is it possible, without affecting yourselves too much, to turn down a little?” somebody politely asks in the background, off-mic. “Apparently there’s been a complaint.”

“From who?” asks John.

“Somebody outside the building,” comes the reply.

“Well, what are they doing here at this time of night? What guy?” fires back a frustrated John.

Several voices debate for a few seconds. In the background, Paul says ‘It’s his own fault for getting a house in such a lousy district!’

John then comes back on the microphone. “Well, we’ll try it once more very loud, and if we don’t get it, we’ll try it quiet….Last chance to be loud!”

As much as I love hearing the alternate versions of these fifty-year old songs, it’s the banter in the studio that’s just as revealing. As we’ve heard before, Paul is always the most playful in the studio. At the beginning of a take of You Never Give Me Your Money, a croaky Paul – at exactly half-past-two, he tells us, presumably in the A.M. – sings ‘You never give me your coffee.’ At the start of the first take of Golden Slumbers, he changes the piano chord from minor to major (specifically from Am7 to D6), singing ‘Day after day…’, the opening line of The Fool On The Hill, before stopping abruptly to concentrate on the task at hand. It’s annoying when the later, solo-years McCartney peppers his releases with this kind of studio tomfoolery. Listening to him larking about as a grown-up feels akin to tolerating a precocious child. Here, as a fresh-faced 27-year old, he’s just endearing.

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As for the album itself, fifty years young, for me it represents their artistic peak. It’s always been in my top 3 Beatles albums, and contests that top spot on an almost daily basis with Revolver and the White Album. It has such a magical vibe, and seems to be full to the brim with positivity. Even John’s default songwriting setting – pessimist – doesn’t seem to derail the proceedings.

Speaking of which, forget other contenders (The Who, The Byrds, and the Beatles’ own Helter Skelter) for the first heavy, heavy sound. Surely the roots of heavy metal can be traced back to John’s doom-laden arpeggios in I Want You (She’s So Heavy). It’s surely the song that feels it’s opening the door for Black Sabbath’s debut just five months later. Lennon and Harrison’s use of arpeggios thoughout their Beatles career – from songs as varied as And I Love Her to Maxwell’s Silver Hammer – feel like one of least celebrated aspects of their musicianship. Mark Lewisohn, in the first volume of his Beatles mega-biography, goes to great pains to point out that it was the band’s vocal harmonies that made them stand out from their contemporaries in their early years. I hope Lewisohn will give the band as much credit for their intricate rhythm guitar lines, in the eagerly anticipated next volume of his biography (currently due in 2020).

Abbey Road also represents the songwriting peak of George Harrison, with two of the album’s songs penned by him. It’s a peak that would last at least as long as his debut record, arguably longer, but there’s no debate that in terms of maturity, both Something and Here Comes The Sun are miles ahead of anything he submitted to the White Album or the Let It Be sessions.

Those calfskin toms on Ringo’s drums get the spotlight at the end of the record, with the break leading into The End serving as a brilliantly held-back bit of drumming. Some might see it as a half-hearted drum-solo, but Ringo’s subtlety and less-is-more ethos, as always, works wonders.

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More than anything, it sounds like McCartney’s enthusiasm – the driving force of the band since the death of manager Brian Epstein in 1967 – has led the band to this point, from movie-making and the aborted attempts to get back to their roots as a performing band, to getting together to record again with George Martin. The studio banter on the sessions discs sound as good natured as the biographies would have us believe all these years, and there doesn’t sound to be any kind of tension from the business affairs that were looming in the background.

The album’s very special to me for one specific reason. Once, during my teens, I was on a holiday over Christmas in the snowy highlands of Scotland. My parents fell sick with food poisoning for a few days, and so I was left to my own company. Out of boredom one day, I decided to walk to the next village and back – a 6-mile round trip, through heavy snow. I took off, with the last Beatles album to be unlocked in my brain – Abbey Road – sitting in my portable CD player. I probably listened to the album 6 or 7 times, back to back, as I made my way through the snow. Those magical elements to the album seemed to be heightened in the landscape and even now I associate it with that hike from Newtonmore to Kingussie and back. In terms of location, it’s not a million miles away from the Mull Of Kintyre, where McCartney might have been wintering with Linda at the time, and so the connection feels just right.

Hit: Here Comes The Sun

Hidden Gem: Goodbye (Home Demo)

Rocks In The Attic #789: Primal Scream – ‘Maximum Rock ‘N Roll – The Singles Volume Two’ (2019)

RITA#789I only bought this record because one of my local record stores got a copy in signed by Bobby Gillespie.

Why else would I buy a greatest hits collection of singles released since I last bought a studio album by the band? I guess it saves buying the individual albums. I picked up the first volume at the same time – a no brainer – but surely the second volume is a pointless barrel-scraping exercise?

It turns out I know – and like – every song on here. Maybe my old man ears are more attuned to contemporary music than I care to let on. It’s a damn-sight more consistent than the first volume, which is all over the place stylistically. Maybe I should pick up some of those post-XTRMNTR albums…

After congratulating me on picking up the autographed copy quickly after they posted it on their Instagram account, the man at the record store delighted in telling me in how good the band were at their recent Auckland gig. This conversation really did show up my lack of knowledge about contemporary music.

Record shop man: Did you see them when they last played in town?

Me: No, I didn’t make it. [Opting not to devalue the coolness of my purchase by admitting that I made the mistake of seeing David Duchovny and band play at the same venue the night before]. Any good?

Record shop man: Aw, man. It was awesome. Our bass player ended up playing bass for them.

Me: Oh, what was wrong with Mani? [The last time I took any interest in them, Mani from Primal Scream was firmly ensconced as their bass player.]

Record shop man: No, she was sick. [She? Huh? Why’s he referring to Mani as a woman? Is this record shop man gay, and he’s referring to other men as ‘she’? Or has Mani had a sex change?]

I took my purchases and made a swift exit, desperate for the anonymity of the streets outside. A quick check on Wikipedia put me right – Simone Butler has been their bass player since Mani left to reform the Stone Roses in 2012. Twenty years ago, I would have been all over this. If Bobby Gillespie had farted, I would have read the headline in the NME. Man, I’m out of touch.

As a further example of how out of touch I am, I stopped in to buy these Primal Scream records on the way to an appointment with my urologist. But that’s a different story…

Hit: Country Girl

Hidden Gem: 2013

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Rocks In The Attic #784: Primal Scream – ‘Maximum Rock ‘N Roll – The Singles Volume One’ (2019)

RITA#784This compilation, with a bizarre cover shot suggesting that Primal Scream = Bobby Gillespie and nothing else, charts the band’s progression from indie shoegazers to acid house crossovers to Stones-esque rockers to whatever genre of noise they’re playing on ‘97’s Vanishing Point and 2000’s XTRMNTR.

I can’t imagine what’s on Volume Two, I only picked it up for Bobby Gillespie’s scrawled signature on the front cover. I haven’t bought any of their records since XTRMNTR, but surely I must have heard some of their singles over the last 20 years? Thankfully Volume Two has a much more democratic band photo for the cover.

But back to Volume One, there’s some real bangers on this…

Hit: Rocks Off

Hidden Gem: Jailbird

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No Time To Think

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INT. DAY – EON PRODUCTIONS BOARD ROOM, PINEWOOD STUDIOS

Bond producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson sit on leather chairs, deep in thought.

Barbara: Hurry up Mikey, he’ll be here any minute.

Michael: Okay, Babs, don’t rush me…I’ve almost got it.

Barbara: C’mon, otherwise we’ll have to go with ‘Shatterhand’.

Michael: Ugh…Shat Her Hand.

Barbara: [Puts on a film-trailer voice] “Bond loved her until she…shat…her…hand”.

Michael: Hah!

Barbara chuckles, Michael guffaws.

Michael: Okay, what about ‘Gold’-something. That’s always worked.

Barbara: Nobody buys gold anymore, Mikey. Platinum’s the in-thing now.

Michael: ‘The Island Of Dr. Platinum’?

Barbara: Sounds like a rapper.

Michael: True. ‘The Man With The Platinum Hand’?

Barbara: Not threatening enough.

Michael: ‘The Man With The Platinum Finger’?

Barbara: Too threatening.

Michael: What about space? Something to do with the moon?

Barbara: Boring. We’ve done it.

Michael stares out in the window in desperation.

Michael: What about the weather? We used thunder once.

Barbara: Don’t be stupid, Mikey. [Looks at watch] He’s late – we should have had this figured this out by now.

Michael: ‘Lightning To Kill’?

Barbara: Oooooh. [Pause] No.

Michael: ‘Windmaker’?

Barbara: Huh?

Michael: ‘It Only Rains Twice’?

Barbara: Terrible

Michael: ‘Risico’?

Barbara: No.

Michael: What about diamonds?

Barbara: Maybe.

Michael: Octopuses?

Barbara: Octopi.

Michael: Pie?

Barbara: No, Octopi. The plural of octopus.

Michael: Oh right. I thought you meant something to do with pies.

Barbara: Pie Another Day.

Michael: Hah!

Barbara chuckles, Michael guffaws.

Barbara: ‘Die’ is good though. That worked a couple of times with Pierce.

Michael: Die-something…

They both stare out the window. From outside, they hear the faint sound of a car-door closing, followed by the ‘bip-bip’ of a car-alarm setting.

Barbara: Christ, he’s here. Okay, we’re going with ‘Shatterha-’.

Michael: WAIT! I’ve got it!

Barbara: Go on!

Michael: …Wait…It’s on the tip of my tongue…

Barbara: Hurry up, he’ll be here any second.

Michael: …Aaarrrggghhh…I’ve just got no…time…to…think…

Barbara: That’s it!

The door bursts open. Daniel Craig walks in, wearing Bermuda shorts, flip-flops and a pink linen shirt.

Daniel: Mikey-G, the G-Man! Barbara. ‘Sup, Boo. What’s poppin’?