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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film is a lovingly-crafted comedy-drama which recreates 1969 Hollywood at a time when the hippie dream had turned sour and Charles Manson and his Family lurked around the corner. As ever, the writer-director gives us a sweetshop of period eye-candy and musical treats to savour, a believably authentic magical history tour of the times. And he doesn’t let the truth get in the way of a good bloodbath.

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Above all, it is the first-time pairing of Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt that really strikes gold. As aging TV star, Rick Dalton, and his stunt double, Cliff Booth, the two Hollywood A-listers are an onscreen joy – funny, moving and richly human – the best handsome / charming leading man double-act since Newman and Redford.

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The film opens with a black and white TV trailer for Bounty Law, the western series that made Dalton famous. It is followed by an interview with him and Cliff, in which the stuntman describes his job as “carrying his load”.  We learn later that war hero Booth is now more like a driver and gopher. He lives in a trailer in the shadow of a drive-in theatre with his pitbull terrier, Brandy.

By contrast, Rick has a mansion and swimming pool on Cielo Drive; he swigs cocktails from a Bavarian tankard and talks along to tapes of his old films when he needs his ego boosting. Fearing that he is a ‘has-been’, Rick is an insecure drunk, prone to stuttering, forgetting his lines and crying on his buddy’s shoulder. But the pair seem to have a solid bond – “more than a brother, less than a wife.”

When new hotshot director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) moves in next door with his wife, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), and Cliff has a run-in with the Manson family at their ranch, we expect events to unfold towards a historically-correct gory climax. But as the clock counts down on August 8th, 1969, Tarantino wrong-foots his audience with an alternative violent ending, one that is brutal, hysterical and horribly funny.

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Standout scenes include a masterful homage to a scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho and a comic argument/fight between Cliff and martial arts legend Bruce Lee (Mike Moh), who is controversially portrayed as an prissily arrogant upstart: “I unleash all my power,” he declares, boasting that if he had a fight against Cassius Clay, he would “make him a cripple.”

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Like many of Tarantino’s films, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood goes on a bit too long, but this is cinema to immerse yourself in. It never grates or bores. It would be hard to think of scenes which could be cut here. Perhaps Tate’s trip to the cinema to see her own film, The Wrecking Crew? Or Rick’s on-set exchanges with a precocious child actor (Julia Butters)? But these scenes humanize the characters and give them depth. ‘Barbie doll’ Tate is shown watching the audience’s response to her ‘klutz’ role, uncertain at first, then laughing along with their laughter. Rick bares his sentimental soul to his younger, wiser co-star and she boosts his fragile confidence.

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I left the cinema feeling strangely invigorated and refreshed. Quentin Tarantino has created another slow-burn classic, a film whose verve and ambience stay with you long after the credits roll. If you go and see Once Upon a Time in Hollywood at a Picture House cinema, you will get a pre-film thank-you from Mr. Tarantino himself. And he rewards viewers who stay beyond the credits with more fun.

Volunteering at the Leper Chapel

Last week volunteers from my workplace braved a heatwave inferno to help a local charity with their ‘meadow management’. In energy-sapping temperatures of up to 36 degrees C (96.8 F) we raked hay while the sun shone and enjoyed the break from our office screens (if not the air-con).

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Cambridge Past, Present & Future (CPPF) is “dedicated to protecting and enhancing the green setting of Cambridge for people and nature”. They look after five sites in the area – we have previously volunteered at Wandlebury and Coton – but this was the first time we had visited the Leper Chapel and its meadowland. This 12th century Romanesque building is one of the oldest in Cambridge and was originally the chapel of an isolation hospital caring for people with leprosy.

It is now bordered by a main road, a railway line and a car scrap yard, a crazy juxtaposition that makes you wonder what the town planners were thinking. But this also has the effect of making the building and the land behind it feel more precious.

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CPPF wardens Ray and Thev explained that the aim of the hay-raking work was to encourage more wild plants and flowers. Ray took us to a patch of the meadow which had more biodiversity and gave us a quick botany lesson: we learned the names of plants and flowers such as plantains, knapweed and bird’s foot trefoil (or ‘eggs and bacon’). We saw grasshoppers and crickets and stumbled over a minefield of ant-nest mounds.

Lunch in the cool of the Chapel itself was a blessed relief. Ice-cold Coke and honeydew melon never tasted so good. Breaking news of a change to the UK’s Prime Minister was dispiriting, but also made some of us attack the hay a little more violently in the afternoon.

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As with the politics, the landscape around the Leper Chapel is also changing: diggers are gouging out a cycle route called the Chisholm Trail, which will soon join the two Cambridge railway stations and link to St. Ives. The result will be a window for cyclists onto the meadowland oasis that we helped to preserve.

20190723_131606Photographs by Heather Daniel

Midsommar

The sun shines down on a picturesque village as characters are killed off in outrageous ways. But folk horror Midsommar is more Wicker Man than Midsomer Murders, a hallucinatory bad-trip to a Swedish pagan festival with its own Pyramid stage and pyrotechnic climax.

Ari Aster’s follow-up to 2018’s Hereditary is also about family and grief. Both films feature nightmarish images that will be hard to erase from your memory. If Midsommar feels slightly disappointing after Aster’s brilliantly disturbing debut, it is an atmospheric, ambitious and unsettling film, with added comedy value.

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After a shocking family tragedy, college student Dani (Florence Pugh) travels to Sweden with her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and three of his mates. They have been invited by one of them, Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), to his home – a rural commune called the Hårga, which is holding a once-in-ninety-years festival.

In a long pre-credits sequence, writer-director Aster has already shown us that Dani and Christian’s relationship is under strain. All the signs are that this will not be a happy holiday: turbulence at the end of the flight; depth-charges of doom from Bobby Krlic’s creepy score. And a world turned upside down by cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski as the group drive to their destination – the sky becomes a river with their car skimming along its surface.

The gateway into the Hårga commune is a through a homemade wooden sun and it feels like a portal into another world, like going down Alice’s rabbit hole. Almost immediately the group are offered drugs and things get progressively weird.

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Midsommar goes on a bit too long, but its extended second act induces a woozy, trancelike state in the viewer, as if we, too, have been taking drugs and been out in the sun too long. When Christian asks what is in some potion he is being offered, he is told that the drink “breaks down your defences and opens you up to the influence.”

So many hallucinatory potions are swallowed or inhaled in the film that we doubt the truth of what we are seeing. Expected country customs such as maypole dancing and feasts (“Skol!”) intermingle with the jarringly unusual. The commune’s children play ‘Skin the Fool’ and carve wooden runes at school; we are shown embroidered sheets with graphic images (a girl has spiral eyes like Kaa’s in Jungle Book).  Dani sees grass growing out of her hands.  Is that a bear, there, in a cage?

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Comedy highlights include Will Poulter’s character freaking out about the lack of darkness at 9 in the evening (“I don’t like it!”) and an assisted  sex scene which defies description

Florence Pugh, who recently appeared in BBC’s The Little Drummer Girl, has a magnetic screen stillness and an open face that helps us side with Dani and empathise with what she is going through. Her grieving innocence also makes her very appealing to the villagers, if not her own boyfriend. Pelle helps her figure things out, telling Dani: “I have always felt held by a family … But do you feel held by him? Does he feel like home to you?”

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Aster has crafted a kind of slasher break-up movie about family and belonging, dressed up as a folk horror, which puts Dani through a harsh bout of Gestalt therapy. Seen in this way Midsommar almost offers us a happy ending.

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Amazing Grace

****

This grainy 1972 documentary, which records two nights of Aretha Franklin at the height of her superpowers, is finally available after technical and legal problems. Music fans will be delighted that film and soundtrack are now in synch: the resulting film is an uplifting time-capsule of gospel rapture and mighty afros.

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This being a church (the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles), the First Lady of Soul offers up her astonishing voice to the Lord. It is a gift of great richness and warmth. Stretching the song Amazing Grace out to nearly 11 minutes, Aretha uses melisma to goosebump-making effect. This is speaking-in-tongues singing. Her voice goes all over the place, up and down the scales, channelling the spirit, as the congregation encourage her to “Sing it!” and “Bring it!”.

Backed by her band and the Southern California Community Choir, Aretha’s voice fills the church and it is overwhelming, causing some to shake their stuff in the aisles and others to flop back into their seats, sobbing. Music sounds special in churches. Atmosphere, spirituality and raw proximity can often combine to make you feel overcome with emotion. To have been part of this audience, witnessing Aretha in close-up, must have been incredible.

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Standing at the mike in her white sequinned gown (a green and white paisley number for Night Two), or playing the piano, Aretha is a meek and humble presence, taking her ego out of the equation. She doesn’t speak to those gathered, taking a back seat while The Reverend Dr. James Edward Cleveland preaches and sings her praises.

Director Sydney Pollock includes one scene from a rehearsal which shows Aretha in ‘business’ mode, unhappy with the music and demanding retakes from her band. This seems a bit random unless it is meant as contrast, to show her no-nonsense side: this is a powerful lady in control, not just a submissive instrument for the male preachers’ greater glory.

Cleveland is the second star of the show, a religious MC who combines humour and pathos. “She can sing anything,” he says, [pause] “Three Blind Mice …” Preaching in front of a garish backdrop painting of Jesus walking on water, Cleveland marvels at his people’s journey: “Never did we think 20 years ago that God would do great things for us”.

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Aretha’s father, Rev. C.L. Franklin, is also is called upon to testify to her talents: “That intangible something that is hard to describe. It was more than that to me … it took me back to the living room at home when she was 6 or 7. I saw you crying and I saw you responding. I was just about to burst wide open. I say with pride. Aretha is not only my daughter, she is a stone singer.”

He compares her to James Brown, Mahalia Jackson and Clara Ward. “Some people ask me when Aretha is coming back to the church. She has never left the church.” Franklin wipes the sweat from his daughter’s face as she sings I Have Heard of a Land. He watches her intently, knocked out by the sound that is coming out of her mouth, still astounded by that voice.

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Eighth Grade

*****

Eighth Grade is an excruciatingly honest coming-of-age drama about what it feels like to be a socially awkward 13 year-old girl. It is cringe-inducing, funny, moving and ultimately hopeful. Teenage actress Elsie Fisher is wonderful as Layla. Her performance feels raw and real and we are with her every step of the way, suffering her agonies of mortification and celebrating her hard-won victories and glimpses of happiness.

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Layla’s painful journey from eighth grade to the cusp of High School freedom is orchestrated with empathetic brilliance by first-time writer-director, Bo Burnham. After witnessing such a sensitive and wise portrayal of adolescent girlhood, it was a surprise to learn that Bo is a twenty-eight year-old man.

During her last week of Middle School we follow Layla around as if she is the subject of a documentary on teenage anxiety. Fisher’s acting is so lifelike that we respond to her character as if she was a real person. We first see her via her homemade vlog, in which she tries to help her audience feel better about themselves. Her video topics include ‘being yourself’ and ‘how to be confident’. A dedicated self-improver, Layla has a wall of motivational post-it stickers (sample: ‘Go Get’em!’) and a handwritten list of ‘Things I want’ and ‘how to get them’. Top of the list are a best friend and a boyfriend.

When Layla is awarded the class superlative award for ‘most quiet’, she looks so crushed we want to give her a hug. Layla is determined to beat her shyness but there seems to be no escape from her lonely misery; the tyranny of the mobile screen and peer pressure of social media only add to it.

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Layla has a crush on Aidan, winner of the ‘best eyes’ award. But sex is a puzzle to her, made more baffling by the sex education video they are shown in class (‘Chapter 1: the hair down there’). Any tentative forays into the sexual end in squeamishness and embarrassment.

In one of the film’s best scenes Layla makes her entrance at a ‘cool’ classmate’s party: we watch her from behind as she trudges towards the swimming pool with sloping shoulders, as if walking to her execution. It has the same sense of dislocation, of being forced into an alien world, as the pool party scene in The Graduate (1967), in which a reluctant young Dustin Hoffman surveys the watching adults through a scuba diving mask. As if to emphasise this link, nerdy Hoffman lookalike Gabe (Jake Ryan) surfaces next to Layla wearing a swimming mask and starts chatting to her.

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Any attempts to befriend the cool kids is doomed to failure. A hush descends as birthday girl Kennedy opens Kayla’s present, a card game. “It’s actually really fun,” says Kayla. Kennedy looks as if she has just unwrapped a dog turd.

Despite all this Layla has the courage to take the mike and sing karaoke. In a nicely-judged move by director Burnham we don’t get to hear what she sounds like and we don’t get to see any negative reactions from the other kids. For all we know, Kayla might have a singing voice like Aretha Franklin.

Much-needed happiness arrives in the form of Olivia (Emily Robinson), the older girl paired with Layla for the day when her class visit their High School. Olivia is kind and reassuring (“You’re so cute … I was a complete mess when I was your age”) and it is a joy to see Layla really smiling, loving the company of a cool older friend. This is what she has been missing and we wonder how much easier life might have been for her with an older sister to mentor her.

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Beyond the teenage angst, Layla has a loving relationship with her Dad (Josh Hamilton), who has brought her up single-handedly since she was a baby. He might be a bit of a ‘dork’, but she takes his advice to heart. When he interrupts her phone-scrolling at the dinner table – gently encouraging her to ‘put yourself out there a bit more’, she is annoyed. But the next topic of her vlog is ‘putting yourself out there.’

When we first see Layla she is wearing a butterfly t-shirt so Burnham prompts us to expect transformation. Will she turn into a beautiful butterfly? Or will the nervous butterflies in her stomach stop her becoming her true self? When Layla opens her old time capsule shoebox she doesn’t much like her younger self. But her new eighth grade one includes a video message to her future self: “I can’t wait to be you.”

Free Ballooning

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If you think that extreme sports such as kite surfing are a recent invention, think again. According to Tom Crouch’s book Lighter Than Air: An Illustrated History of Balloons and Airships (2009), by the end of the nineteenth century the Free Balloon was not only popular in France, but was “attracting an entirely new class of enthusiasts on two continents.”

As Crouch explains, “a short voyage aloft, dangling beneath a colorfully decorated bag of hydrogen” – like the image depicted in the above poster – “proved just the ticket for a jaded young man with money in his pocket and a taste for adventure.” Likewise, this poster reminds that while entertainment like the circus and ballooning were sources of cultural fascination throughout France, the level of a Frenchman’s participation was dictated by his social status.

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The Aéro Club de France became a favorite gathering place for one of the wealthiest and most fashionable social circles in fin-de-siècle Paris. Ballooning, for over a century the presence of aerial showmen, soldiers, and adventures, now became a sport appearing to wealthy dilettantes.

 

 

 

Skinny Lister live at Cambridge Junction

April 10th, 2019

Skinny Lister are a welcome reminder that not everything in England has gone to shit. This rollicking good-time indie folk six-piece are a tonic for our troubled times – a dose of communal uplift and an advert for the healing power of live music. They should be prescribed on the NHS.

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Since the band formed in London in 2009 they have released four albums and toured extensively, honing the kind of polished-yet-spontaneous live set showcased at this Cambridge Junction gig. Not having heard them before my son offered me a ticket, I am now a convert. Skinny Lister’s songs are so catchy they get into your bloodstream after first listen. By the time they play Six Whiskies during the encore you feel like bellowing along even if you’ve only had a couple of shandies.

Comparisons to The Pogues are warranted – see Sally Maclennane-soundalikes This is War, and Hamburg Drunk. Skinny Lister share the same bar-room romanticism and sonic template. They even have a Christmas song (Christmas Calls). But they are far more clean-cut and harmonious. Singer/guitarist Dan Heptinstall looks more like young actor Thomas Sangster (Maze Runner, Nanny McPhee) than Shane McGowan, and their folk-pop cocktail never seriously threatens to go off the rails.

Any resemblance to folk imposters Mumford & Sons, though, should be confined to their most popular song on Spotify, Rollin’ Over, which has the same earworm quality as Mumford’s inescapable smash The Cave.

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Skinny Lister have a musical magpie approach, borrowing sparkle from British pop royalty – Dexys, Madness and The Clash (see My Distraction’s nod to Police on My Back’s 2-note guitar solo); they also deign to allow the commoners into their repertoire – see The Alarm-like call-to-arms of 38 Minutes. But their best songs transcend these influences: Cathy has an exuberant terrace-chant of a chorus (“Oh Cathy, you’ve got me on my knees, my knees, my knees”) and Six Whiskies is a stirringly bittersweet ode to London.

On stage Skinny Lister line up a bit like The Clash in their global heyday, orchestrating their look and attack – red shirts and quiffs on one side, black on the other. They have a cool bass player (Scott Milsom) who lifts his double bass high in the air; he looks like actor Laurence Fox (Lewis) playing Paul Simonon.

The band are generous. “You’re looking very beautiful tonight” vocalist Lorna Thomas tells us more than once (we’re really not, but thanks, anyway). She gets off the stage to dance with those at the front, passing round an enormous earthenware flagon from which many of us take a swig. What was that stuff? I can’t be sure but it tasted like vodka and peppermint. In the spirit of cameraderie they invite members of the support bands on stage for a communal encore.

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Slow songs such as Colours are interspersed in the set, but don’t dampen the party mood, with the band encouraging audience sing-alongs to Bonny Away and John Kanaka. We came to escape the madness of Brexit and Skinny Lister have a song for that too (Thing Like That):

Why do you want to go and do a thing like that?

We’ll come to find we’re living in a land gone mad

Throw away the world to get your country back

Why do you want to go and do a thing like that?