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Quentin Tarantino

New Podcast: PICK A DISC – ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Official Soundtrack’

Hosted by Matt Latham, Pick A Disc is part of the We Made This podcast network and sees a guest choose an album of music which they come on to the show and discuss.

Latham–a very old friend of mine, first from the online and eventually the real world–was gracious enough to invite me back on to discuss the soundtrack to Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which I got on vinyl for Christmas.

This was a fun discussion, in Latham’s nice living room, about 60’s music, the cultural impact, Tarantino, movie soundtracks and more!

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From the Vault #22: THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

From 2012 onwards, before developing this blog, I wrote a multitude of reviews on the website Letterboxd. In this irregular series called From the Vault, I’m going to haul these earlier reviews out of mothballs and re-purpose them here.

This one, timed as Guy Ritchie’s The Gentlemen arrives in cinemas, is from August 18th, 2015…

From an impossibly cool, jazzy song over the Cold War scene setting opening credits, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. sets its stall out right from the very beginning as two things: a classy, retro stylish spy romp and very much a Guy Ritchie film.

It’s taken a *long* time to bring Sam Rolfe’s cult 60’s TV series, a slightly forgotten phenomenon of its time which capitalised on the James Bond obsession of the age (which of course never quite went away), to fruition – for years it was in the hands of multiple writers and directors. Quentin Tarantino almost made it in the mid-90’s but opted (perhaps wisely) for Jackie Brown instead, while Steven Soderbergh perhaps came the closest with George Clooney headlining, but let it go with concerns he couldn’t make it work with the budget offered.

In hindsight, Ritchie is probably the best fit for the stylistics in play here, a director always with one eye on style over substance with another eye on how to fuse a set piece with a river of cheeky, knowing comedy. What he succeeds in doing here is updating a property most modern audiences won’t be familiar with into an equally modern sensibility, while never losing touch with the 60’s retro beats and character interplay between leading West meets East characters Napoleon Solo, gentleman thief turned super spy, and Ilya Kuryakin, strong humourless Russian bear with anger problems.

It may be as deep as a puddle, but splashing around hasn’t been this enjoyable in a while.

2019 Top 10: Movies

As we close out 2019, it’s time to put together a few Top 10 lists based on my key entertainment passions – film, TV and film scores.

I’ve gone back and forth on decade lists but I suspect I’m just going to keep to 2019 releases on the blog, and maybe do something more with the decade on my Twitter or FB, so stay tuned in that regard.

Next up – movies! I’ve done quite well this year, managing to watch a good 50 movies from the calendar year, which is more than I sometimes manage. So I feel placed to at least come up with a reasonable Top 10, even though I know I have a few blind spots & certain films will probably push out the lower films on this list eventually. But that’s for the future, so here goes…

2019 Top 10: Film Scores

As we close out 2019, it’s time to put together a few Top 10 lists based on my key entertainment passions – film, TV and film scores.

I’ve gone back and forth on decade lists but I suspect I’m just going to keep to 2019 releases on the blog, and maybe do something more with the decade on my Twitter or FB, so stay tuned in that regard.

I’m going to start with Film/TV Scores. This hasn’t been as great a passion for me in the second half of 2019, after especially the end of Season 1 of Between the Notes, but I’ve still been listening along to cinematic and prestige TV music, so here are my choices for the most impressive listens of 2019, with a sample to listen to along the way…

TV, Book, Movie and Podcast Roundup – Summer 2019

Welcome to September! Because there’s not enough useless information floating around on the internet, I thought I would update readers of this blog as to what I’ve watched/read over the previous month, each month, in the form of TV, movies and books.

Some of this I will have reviewed on the blog but others I’ve just been watching for enjoyment with Mrs Black. This edition covers both July and August collectively.

Let’s start this month with TV…

SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK: The Power of Unjust Narratives

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a film about the power of narrative, hence why much of the action takes place on a key night in 1968.

Just after Halloween, always a night popular with horror films as a setting, in 1968 saw election night of the next President of the United States, a night in which Richard Nixon finally was elevated to the position of Commander-in-Chief. While Andre Ovredal’s adaptation of the children’s book series by Alvin Schwartz is primarily concerned with the terrifying events swirling around bookish teenager Stella (Zoe Colletti) and her friends as they are haunted by the murderous stories of a tormented spirit, the story undulates with the ominous spectre of Nixon’s election looming over small-town America, the kind of latent 1950’s hangover, Midwestern town that wouldn’t go amiss in the world of Stephen King.

Schwartz’s original book takes place at the tail end of the 1960’s, a decade in which the counter-cultural revolution swept its way across the Western world, particularly the United States, though it seems to have passed Mill Valley, Pennsylvania by. Stella is haunted by her mother’s abandonment, perhaps to explore the big city world offered by the promise of the 60’s. Her friend Auggie (Gabriel Rush) is a middle-aged man in a young guy’s body, while mysterious stranger Ramon (Michael Garza) turns out to be a draft dodger – avoiding the senseless Vietnam conflict that killed his brother. These are not teenagers rushing headlong into a heady 60’s of abandonment, if anything they are anxious and rooted by their circumstances. This makes them far more contemporary and relatable than their period setting suggests.

Nixon’s re-election is a sign, given the US is now experiencing its most divisive and controversial President since ‘Tricky Dicky’, that Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark has one eye on our current problem of confused, false narratives.

ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD: Tarantino’s Goodbye to All That

There is a different aura around Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. There is the sense of a film maker continuing to season, to look back, not just at his own legacy but that of cinema itself in the last half century.

The title almost says it all. Not just a nod and wink to the king of QT’s beloved Spaghetti Westerns, Sergio Leone, and his epic Once Upon a Time in the West, but rather acknowledgement that Tarantino has crafted a Hollywood fable and, as a result, what has to be the most sweet-natured picture he has ever given us. Gone are the loud, vituperative gangsters or assassins, war heroes or slave traders, replaced by the most sensitive of all warriors: the actor.

Alias (Season 1) – Overview

The first season of Alias, the show that put superstar producer-director JJ Abrams on the map, has aged remarkably well.

Airing in 2001, a matter of weeks in the wake of the traumatic September 11th attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, Alias had the unenviable task of providing overblown, B-movie, pulp escapism to an audience reeling from the most existentially terrifying attack on American soil since the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. Abrams, fresh off his first TV series Felicity (starring the later-to-be-famous Keri Russell) and a career penning screenplays across the 1990’s for major Hollywood blockbusters, had to try and sell a show which captured the retro, cult aesthetics of 1960’s adventure shows and movies he had grown up with – Mission: Impossible, I Spy, the James Bond series – shot through with a stylish, slick, modern action sensibility.

It was a hard sell. Audiences gravitated far more to the intense, dour, revenge fantasy of 24 and all-American hero Jack Bauer, who steadily across a decade in which Americans and Western Europe turned their gaze toward Islamic fundamentalism and the threat of the Middle East became more of the superhero Americans wanted. If he was The Punisher, a man of dubious morals ready to compromise his soul for the greater good, then Alias’ hero Sydney Bristow was Captain America; virtuous, homely, and a reflection of wholesome American values, wrapped up inside familial and emotional angst that recalled Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Audiences never truly took Sydney to their breast, to their heart, and almost immediately Alias became a cult genre hit, never to explode fully into the global mainstream.

The sad thing about this is just how well executed Alias’ first season is, one of those rare shows that arrives almost fully formed and very quickly steps into a unique tone and rhythm, only building on that start to deliver twenty two episodes which provide a real sense of payoff.

Alias – ‘The Box – Pt 2’ (1×13)

The first part of The Box established that nothing would ever be the same for Alias once this story was over. The second part cements this one hundred percent in stone.

In discussing part one of The Box, one of the major aspects that becomes clear watching this two-part story is how heavily indebted everything about it is to the classic Hollywood high-concept, and particularly the seminal John McTiernan action thriller from 1988, Die Hard. Indeed, the van which delivers Quentin Tarantino’s McKenas Cole and his lethal band of non-denominational terrorists has the marking ‘McTiernan Air Conditioning’, a direct nod to Die Hard’s helmsman. Later, investigative journalist Will gets key information about his ongoing probe into SD-6 in an envelope on a ship named the ‘Alba Varden’, sharing the name of the same ship key to Richard Donner’s Lethal Weapon 2 from 1989. The Box is keenly aware of the touchstones it is borrowing from and utilising on a modest TV budget, but it suggests the clear scope of Alias’ ambition as a series.

Alias – ‘The Box – Pt 1’ (1×12)

If The Confession was the point of no return, The Box is the tale which catapults Alias into what is, barring one or two exceptions, a season and a half of dynamic, top drawer storytelling.

Alias was a high concept TV series from the outset. The ‘high concept’ in Hollywood vernacular defines an idea which can be distilled into a pure, accessible, often blockbuster form. ‘What if we could clone dinosaurs?’ for example with Jurassic Park, or to use another Michael Crichton example, ‘What if theme park robots became sentient and took control?’. Alias itself flaunts the high concept in its DNA, pitched essentially as ‘What if a spy found out she was working for the enemy?’. Even from Truth Be Told, Alias perhaps throws a few extras caveats into that pitch but in basic terms, that’s the point JJ Abrams’ show starts from. The Box, however, is the first episode to truly deliver on a high concept idea.

If you look at Alias across the first half of its first season, we haven’t seen an episode anything like The Box. Right from the get go, Alias engaged in a level of serialised storytelling through which it broke the 90’s mould of stand-alone, easy to syndicate episodes of television to depict a compelling, ongoing narrative journey for Sydney Bristow as she becomes more embroiled in her double-agent life with SD-6 and the CIA. Each episode, even those which carried heavily over to each other such as Reckoning and Color-Blind, tells an espionage tale on a scale which never overwhelms the broader character and narrative arcs in play: Syd & Jack’s relationship, Syd & Vaughn’s relationship, the Rambaldi mythology etc… Thus far, the spy stories have been fairly incidental and the weekly bad guys relatively disposable.

All of that changes, immediately, with The Box. The first genuine two-part story in Alias’ lifespan, labelled indeed as such, it delivers on the high concept idea with the pitch: ‘What if terrorists seize control of SD-6?’. Alias does Die Hard, basically, and without a shred of embarrassment. Writers John Eisendrath and Jesse Alexander immediately understand their reference point and the fact they are riffing, broadly, off one of the greatest examples of a high concept in Hollywood history. It only adds to the joy of The Box which exemplifies the remarkable level of confidence Alias had in its storytelling from the very beginning. Many other series wouldn’t have the balls to make The Box until maybe its third, even fourth, seasons. Alias gets it out the way as a midpoint to its debut year.