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Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)

Quentin Tarantino has been playing in the realm of genre filmmaking for much of the last twenty years. He’s made highly artful, Oscar-winning variations on B-movies and grindhouse exploitation pictures. There are some film fans that wished he would return to the time of the 90s where he was telling more personal, grounded stories. His ninth movie, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, is Tarantino returning to the landscape of his youth, the Hollywood back lots and television serials that gave birth to his budding imagination. Tarantino has said this is his most personal film and it’s easy to see as a love letter to his influences. It’s going to be a divisive movie with likely as many moviegoers finding it boring as others find it spellbinding.

In February 1969, actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is struggling to recapture his past glory as a popular TV star from a decade prior. Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is Rick’s longtime stuntman, personal driver, and possibly only real friend. Rick’s next-door neighbor happens to be Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), a rising star and the wife to famed director Roman Polanski. All three are on a collision course with the Manson family.

The thing you must know before embarking into a theater to see all of the 160 minutes of Tarantino’s latest opus is that it’s the least plot-driven of all his movies, and it’s also in the least hurry. This feels like a hang-out movie through Tarantino’s memories of an older Hollywood that he grew up relishing. It’s very much a loving homage to the people who filled his head with dreams, with specific affection given to the life of an actor. Tarantino is exploring three different points of an actor’s journey through fame; Sharon Tate is the in-bloom star highly in demand, Rick Dalton is the one who has tasted fame but is hanging on as tightly as he can to his past image and wondering if he’s hit has-been status, and then there’s Cliff Booth who was a never-was, a replaceable man happy to be behind the scenes and who has met his lot in life with a Zen-like acceptance. Each character is at a different stage of the rise-and-fall trajectory of Hollywood fame and yet they remain there. This isn’t a movie where Rick starts in the dumps and turns his life around, or even where it goes from worse to worse. Each character kind of remains in a stasis, which will likely drive many people mad. It will feel like nothing of import is happening and that Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is more a collection of scenes than a whole.

What elevated the film was how much I enjoyed hanging out with these characters. Tarantino is such a strong storyteller that even when he’s just noodling around there are pleasures to be had. Tarantino movies have always favored a vignette approach, unwieldy scenes that serve as little mini movies with their own beginnings, middles, and often violently climactic ends. An excellent example of this is 2009’s Inglourious Basterds where the moments are brilliantly staged and developed while also serving to push the larger narrative forward. That’s missing with Hollywood, the sense of momentum with the characters. We’re spending time and getting to know them, watching them through various tasks and adventures over the course of two days on sets, at home, and on a former film set-turned-ranch for a strange commune. If you’re not enjoying the characters, there won’t be as much for you as a viewer, and I accept that. None of the central trio will crack Tarantino’s list for top characters, but each provides a different viewpoint in a different facet of the industry, though Sharon Tate is underutilized (more on that below). It’s a bit of glorified navel-gazing for Tarantino’s ode to Hollywood nostalgia. There are several inserts that simply exist to serve as silly inclusions that seem to be scratching a personal itch for the director, less the story. I was smiling at most and enjoyed the time because it felt like Tarantino’s affection translated from the screen. I enjoyed hanging out with these people as they explored the Hollywood of yesteryear.

DiCaprio hasn’t been in a movie since winning an Oscar for 2015’s The Revenant and he has been missed. His character is in a very vulnerable place as he’s slipping from the radars of producers and casting agents, filling a string of TV guest appearances as heavies to be bested by the new hero. He’s self-loathing, insecure, boastful, and struggling to reconcile what he may have permanently lost. Has he missed his moment? Is his time in the spotlight eclipsed? There’s a new breed of actors emerging, typified by a little girl who chooses to stay in character in between filming. Everything is about status, gaining it or losing it, and Rick is desperate. There’s a terrific stretch where he’s playing another heavy on another TV Western and you get the highs and lows, from him struggling to remember his lines and being ashamed by the embarrassment of his shaky professionalism, to showing off the talent he still has, if only given the right opportunity. DiCaprio is highly entertaining as he sputters and soars.

The real star of the film is Pitt (The Big Short) playing a man who seems at supernatural ease no matter the circumstance. He’s got that unforced swagger of a man content with his life. He enjoys driving Rick around and providing support to his longtime friend and collaborator. He has a shady past where he may or may not have killed his wife on purpose, but regardless apparently he “got away with it.” This sinister back-story doesn’t seem to jibe with the persona we see onscreen, and maybe that’s the point, or maybe it’s merely a means to rouse suspicion whether he may become persuaded by the Manson family he visits later in the movie dropping off a hitchhiker he’s encountered all day long. The role of Cliff seems to coast on movie star cool. There is supreme enjoyment just watching Pitt be. Watch him feed his dog to a trained routine, watch him fix a broken TV antenna and show off his ageless abs, and watch him navigate trepidatious new territory even as others are trying to intimidate him. It’s Pitt’s movie as far as I’m concerned. He was the only character I felt nervous about when minimal danger presented itself. There’s something to be said that the best character is the unsung one meant to take the falls for others, the kind of back-breaking work that often goes unnoticed and unheralded to keep the movie illusion alive.

There aren’t that many surprises with Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood as it moseys at its own loping pace. It reminded me of a Robert Altman movie or even a Richard Linklater film. It’s definitely different from Tarantino’s more genre-fed excursions of the twenty-first century. It’s a softer movie without the undercurrent of malice and looming violence. There is the Manson family and Tarantino knows our knowledge of the Manson family so we’re waiting for their return and that fateful night in August, 1969 like a ticking clock. It wouldn’t be a Tarantino movie without an explosion of bloody violence as its climax, and he delivers again, but I was shocked how uproariously funny I found the ending. I laughed throughout but as the movie reached its conclusion I was doubled over with laughter and clapping along. There’s a flashback where Cliff and a young Bruce Lee challenge each other to a fight, and it’s so richly entertaining. The phony film clips are also a consistent hoot, especially when Rick goes to Italy. It’s a funnier movie than advertised and, despite its ending, a far less violent movie than his reputation.

As Tarantino’s memory collection, the level of loving homage can start to eat the narrative, and this is most noticeable with the handling of Sharon Tate. The initial worries that Tarantino would exploit the horrendous Manson murders for his own neo-pop pulp was unfounded. Tate is portrayed with empathy and compassion, and as played by Robbie she nearly glides through the film as if she were an angel gracing the rest of us unfortunate specimens. She has a great moment where she enters a movie theater playing a comedy she is a supporting player in. The camera focuses on Robbie’s (I,Tonya) face as an array of micro expressions flash as she takes in the approving laughter of the crowd. It’s a heartwarming moment. But all of that doesn’t make Tate a character. She’s more a symbol of promise, a young starlet with the world at her fingertips, the beginning phase of fame. Even the Manson clan doesn’t play much significance until the final act. Charles Manson is only witnessed in one fleeting scene. I thought Tarantino was including Tate in order to right a historical wrong and empower a victim into a champion, and that doesn’t quite happen. I won’t say further than that though her narrative significance is anticlimactic. You could have easily cut Sharon Tate completely out of this movie and not affected it much at all. In fact, given the 160-minute running time, that might have been a good idea. The movie never really comes to much of something, whether it’s a statement, whether it’s a definitive end, it just feels like we’ve run out of stories rather than crafted an ending that was fated to arrive given the preceding events.

The Tarantino foot fetish joke has long been an obvious and hacky criticism that I find too many people reach for to seem edgy or clever, so I haven’t mentioned it in other reviews. He does feature feet in his films but they’ve had purpose before, from arguing over the exact implications of a foot rub in Pulp Fiction to Uma Thurman commanding her big toe to wiggle and break years of entropy in Kill Bill. However, with Hollywood, it feels like Tarantino is now trolling his detractors. There are three separate sequences featuring women’s feet, two of which just casually place them right in the camera lens. At this point in his career, I know he knows this lame critique, and I feel like this is his response. It’s facetious feet displays.

When it comes to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, if you’re not digging the vibe, man, then there’s less to latch onto as an audience member. It’s a definite hang-out movie reminiscent of Altman or Linklater where we watch characters go about their lives, providing peaks into a different world. It’s a movie about meandering but I always found it interesting or had faith that was rewarded by Tarantino. It doesn’t just feel like empty nostalgia masquerading as a movie. It’s funnier and more appealing than I thought it would be, and even though it’s 160 minutes it didn’t feel long. The acting by DiCaprio and Pitt is great, as is the general large ensemble featuring lots of familiar faces from Tarantino’s catalogue. I do think the inclusion of Sharon Tate serves more of a symbolic purpose than a narrative purpose and wish the movie had given her more to do or even illuminated her more as a character. However, the buddy film we get between DiCaprio and Pitt is plenty entertaining. It might not be as narratively ambitious or intricate or even as satisfying as Tarantino’s other works, but Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is a fable for a Hollywood that may have only existed in Tarantino’s mind, but he’s recreated it with uncompromising affection.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Compliance (2012)

The day at a fast food eatery began like any other. Sandra (Ann Dowd), the manager of the branch, has to shepherd her small group of employees through a hectic Friday evening. Then she gets a phone call from an “Officer Daniels” (Pat Healy). He tells her one of her workers, Becky (Dreama Walker), has stolen money from a customer. Sandra takes Becky into a storeroom and confronts her. Becky is aghast and professes her innocence. This is where things start to get out of control in writer/director Craig Zobel’s potent indie pressure-cooker. “Officer Daniels” insists that Becky be searched, then strip searched, and then worse, and Sandra and the employees begrudgingly go along. After all, it’s an officer of the law telling them what to do. Except that “Officer Daniels” is no police officer. This whole incident is an awful prank, and the people involved will never be the same.

This really is an indie horror movie, flipping the oft-repeated cry, “Don’t go in there,” with, “Why are you still doing this?” You may have to watch portions of this movie between your fingers. I was squirming and crying out at numerous points. The tension and dread just continue to mount, and you watch the characters slowly degrade, as they’re asked to do more insidious acts of humiliation in the name of compliance, and to watch them carry on the path of shame. It’s a step-by-step process of human degradation, so that the more disturbing moments of sexual obedience don’t feel entirely implausible given the journey through hell the characters have endured. It is impossible to watch this movie silent and detached. This is a provocative film that will garner many reactions but it’s also something of an endurance test. How long can you watch? How far can you watch these characters descend? The movie hooks you early and then you almost feel complicit, but you’re completely taken over by morbid curiosity.

The movie is a powerful modern-day example of the Milgram experiment, the famous psychological exercise where a figure in authority, who assumes all responsibility, gradually gets average people to commit increasingly harmful acts to others. As long as people believe they are following orders, they can be convinced to do almost anything by someone in control. It’s easy to sit back and judge these characters, scoffing at how naïve they seem to be. It’s always easy for us to say what we would do in hypothetical situations, that is, until they happen. Compliance is an intriguing analysis of the shifting facets of power, authority, and manipulation. “Officer Daniels” enlists a host of tricks and verbal intimidation to persuade his victims to do things outside their better judgment (the caller’s true profession is a brilliant backstory). After a while, Sandra looks to be developing some slight Stockholm syndrome as she empathizes more with the plight of the phony officer on the phone than her employee. He provides just enough sympathy and validation she’s looking for to win her over. He also plays people against one another; he implores Becky to spare Sandra any extended grief, which often cows her into consenting. “Officer Daniels” isn’t the only one manipulating others; Sandra pressures employees to become involved in the situation, using her position of power to squeeze others into getting what she wants. There are numerous victims and culprits here.

Zobel could have easily given over to the exploitation elements of his story and made a very tawdry, voyeuristic exercise in sexual dominance. We watch as Becky bares all of herself and then goes even further, as “Officer Daniels” instructs male attendants to physically inspect her body cavities. It is a credit to Zobel’s sensitive direction that Compliance does not come across like a glorified S&M masturbation fantasy. He treats the incident very seriously, providing clear distaste without going overboard into preachy condemnation or superiority. It’s amazing that Zobel’s script finds so much empathy for his participants. You may be surprised at how relatable and “normal” these people seem. You may even recognize some of them. They’re all trying to do the right thing at heart, but that distinction gets extremely blurry as the night carries on. The point of Zobel’s script is that these people could be us. The added empathy makes the downward spiral all the more stomach-churning, as we want these characters to take a stand, to wise up and question the voice of authority.

Dowd (Marley & Me) is downright heartbreaking and deeply frustrating in the movie. We get a clear sense of the pressure she’s under in her position, but she’s really the focal point of the movie. Walker (TV’s Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23) is the martyr of the piece, and her slow resignation to the humiliation is deeply affecting, but this is Dowd’s movie. The longtime character actress takes the character of the dowdy Sandra, striving for respect, and transforms her into a figure worthy of Greek tragedy. She can be vindictive and, well, bossy, but she’s also a figure struggling for respect and validation and what she feels is morally just. We watch as her confidence starts getting chipped away, the flickers of doubt that she must tamp down because now she’s gone too far to reverse course. I don’t imagine that a movie as small as Compliance will be remembered around Oscar time, but I’ll certainly recall Dowd’s sad and transfixing performance.

I’d like to share a spooky bit of personal connection to the film. No I’ve never experienced anything this heinous before, but there was an offhand music cue that caught my interest. When we cut to the dining area early on, there’s an Admiral Twin song playing. Who is Admiral Twin? Why they’re a brilliant pop-rock band from Tulsa, Oklahoma that I’ve been singing the praises of since 2000. I’ve won over friends with my discipleship, but the band is still relatively unknown, playing few performances outside of their native Tulsa. Given the phonetic approximations of my name with the film’s writer/director, and the inclusion of an obscure indie band that few know (but should), it seems likely that Zobel may indeed be some far off relative of mine or, more likely, myself. I must have crafted an entire film without ever knowing about it. This seems like the most probable scenario.

I don’t want it sound like Compliance is some grueling exercise in group sadism. In lesser hands, it might have devolved to that. It’s a fascinating and provocative game that challenges and incenses an audience. The movie is a sickening but compulsively watchable dramatic experiment that will leave you talking for hours once it concludes. It’s an uncomfortable sit, yes, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile. The events in the film seem unbelievable and yet it’s based on a true story. This stuff happened, people. Not only that, it happened multiple occasions in multiple vicinities. What does that say about human nature? Will we only be as good as society lets us be? If we are absolved of responsibility, how far removed from our own sense of ethics will we go? Are we all susceptible to this moral failing under the right circumstances? I think that’s the truly terrifying and lasting lesson of Compliance. These people could be us, both victim and unwitting antagonist. Destined to stir debate and become a college ethics course favorite, Compliance is a gripping movie that will make you cringe but also give way to some scary introspection. How far would you go?

Nate’s Grade: A-

Gran Torino (2008)

Clint Eastwood is an icon but he’s also proven to be a remarkable and thoughtful director in his twilight years. When the star first traveled behind the camera he mostly stuck with the action films that were his cinematic bread and butter. Then he showed something grander with 1992’s Unforgiven and rebounded back to that quality with a string of critically lauded flicks like Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Flags of our Fathers, and Letters from Iwo Jima. Three of those films were nominated for Best Picture, including three Best Director noms, and Baby won. The prolific screen icon has taken his directing skills up to another level in his older age and Eastwood has chosen to work on somber, mature, and meditative tales. Gran Torino is a movie caught between two different eras of Eastwood direction. It has the sheen and intentions of one of the recent loftier works and the film also taps into the suspense of his earlier action vehicles. It’s the only non-Batman movie targeted for Oscars this year that features ass kicking.

Walt Kowalski (Eastwood) is a retired Korean War veteran living in Detroit. He worked on the Ford factory lines for over 30 years and now has the pleasure of seeing his spoiled children driving foreign cars. His neighborhood has been inundated with Hmong immigrants from South East Asia. It seems the Hmong people sided with the Americans during the Vietnam War, and when the Americans left, well, it didn’t turn out so well for them. One old Hmong lady chastises Walt as a stupid old man and doesn’t know why he hasn’t fled like the other whites that used to live in the neighborhood. Things aren’t like they used to be. Gangs run rampant and terrorize the people into silence. We’re told that when it comes to the Hmong, the women go to college and the men go to jail. A Hmong gang keeps trying to recruit Tao (Bee Vang) into their ranks. He is looked down upon as a weakling and for doing women’s work, like gardening and the dishes. His initiation into the gang is to steal Walt’s pristine 1972 Gran Torino, the old man’s prized possession and one he helped build on the assembly line. Walt catches Tao in the act and eventually the boy works for Walt to repay the offense. Together, Walt and Tao form an unlikely bond. His Hmong neighbors cherish Walt for saving Tao from the gangs and the community opens its arms to him. Walt helps Tao find a job and stand up for himself, but the pull of the gangs is too strong. Walt realizes that Tao and his bright sister Sue (Ahney Her) will never be allowed to have a future as long as the Hmong gang is around.

It’s hard to take the movie purely on the surface without some preparation. Because in synopsis, Gran Torino sounds like a ham-fisted after school special where Old Man Dirty Harry teaches the youngsters about the dangers of gangs and violence. The film is hard to fully describe without it sounding like a parody. Yet Gran Torino manages to come together along the journey. The movie balances gracefully even when it seems like it is going to dip into self-parody. Simply put, having Eastwood point a gun and growl, “Get off my lawn,” the quintessential geezer line, is almost calling out for ridicule. The gang storyline feels at times incredibly natural in approach and its casual, realistic dialogue, and at other times the storyline, like the film, feels like it is leading you by the nose. Some of the stock characters are sketched so thin, like the self-centered granddaughter who wears a midriff-bearing outfit to her grandmother’s funeral (all the better to witness your navel piercing, my dear). The spoiled children and grandchildren come across as too broad to be believable. The messages are all familiar, the characters are even somewhat familiar, but Gran Torino emerges as something more understated and perceptive than “Archie Bunker with a gun.” It’s a moderately rich character piece that follows one man resorting to his better nature in his golden years. Walt’s redemption may be predictable from the first minute but that doesn’t make Gran Torino any less satisfying. In fact, the movie on a whole is an embarrassingly entertaining experience. Sure, there’s a certain primal rah-rah vengeance angle to it, and watching a 78-year-old man kick around some youngster is always worth watching. But the novelty of the movie is not cheap xenophobic wish fulfillment, watching an old white war vet eliminate the immigrants in his neighborhood. The draw of this movie is an old-fashioned tale told well, which is equally earnest and glum.

The dialogue can be forcibly blunt as it spits out every offensive racial epithet, slur, and stereotype known to human ears (it’s practically the comedy routine of the unfunny Carlos Mencia). The screenplay by Nick Schenk confuses racist pabulum with comedy gold, like hearing an old lady cuss, but Eastwood manages to make it work. The rampant racist dialogue tends to get tiresome unless it begins to chip away and reveal more about a character. Naturally, Walt shuns being politically correct because he is uncompromising. He shakes his head and glowers at what the kids today have turned into. He’s meant to make others feel the same discomfort he feels in today’s world, and words are his weapons at his old age. The backbone of the script is the friendship Walt forms with Tao and his family. Because it begins so reluctantly and moves at a steady pace, the audience is emotionally invested and the friendship is rewarding to witness. The movie presents a fairly universal message about the redemptive power of human kindness, of helping one’s neighbor. It’s a petty big melting pot out there and there’s no reason to dig in and combat change. Gran Torino lacks the forced sanctimony and transparent manipulation of other “important” race-relations movies, like 2005’s Best Picture-winning Crash.

The movie is impossible to view without it also becoming a commentary on an iconic actor’s screen legacy. What does a retired Dirty Harry at 80 look like? I imagine something like Walt, an embittered war vet grumbling about the change all around him that he is powerless to ignore. Eastwood takes great pains to be an angry curmudgeon even until the end, which allows the actor to tap his little seen comic ability. There’s a funny scene where Walt takes Tao to the barbershop for a lesson in how to “talk like a man,” which naturally involves playfully insulting your fellow man. Eastwood knows how to make a racist and standoffish character sympathetic and engaging. It’s a pleasure watching Walt become affectionate and protective, and yet the character’s redemption doesn’t ever feel contrived. His character is scarred and weary and wears his pants up to his armpits, but Clint makes it work. He can be sad and badass and appalling all at the same time. The character is somewhat similar to his character in Million Dollar Baby, a grumpy man closed off to the world who mentors a young kid. The flick presents a semi-dignified swan song to what happens when men of action grow old.

Eastwood directs with his typical steady hand and cool decision-making. The camerawork is intimate and sparing, never yanking the audience out of the story. The visuals mimic the characters in that nothing feels over polished. I enjoyed the small bits that pointed to something deeper, like Walt pointing his finger, a pistol and lining up his antagonists. I also enjoyed that Walt refrains from ever spilling his guts about his guilt during the Korean War except in a way that feels true to the character. Eastwood also shows a bit of his directorial prowess by hiring a bunch of Hmong actors that have had no acting experience. Some of them fare better than others, and some are in fact kind of bad, but this decision makes the movie feel more authentic. Now, it’s rare for me to cite sketchy acting as a plus for a movie, and that should be a testament to Eastwood’s directing skills. The man has a way with people; since 2003 he’s directed four different actors to Oscars. It must have been what Angelina Jolie was hoping for when she signed up for Changeling, the earlier Eastwood directorial effort from the fall. I think the biggest mistake Eastwood makes as a director is singing the closing song that unrolls right before the credits. Clint’s raspy singing voice is not the best way to close a movie.

Gran Torino isn’t among the same ranks as Eastwood’s other output, like Letters from Iwo Jima or Mystic River, but it’s a small-scale story told with fortitude. Even as I write this review, and you dear reader read them, I feel like I’m failing in my attempt to make the movie sound good. True, on the surface it sounds like a bizarre after school special that would be destined to slip into self-parody and open mockery. Eastwood as star and director makes the material click. Walt’s journey from grumpy bigot to grumpy bigot who has opened up and made amends is greatly entertaining and humorous throughout. Gran Torino can be seen as a deconstructionist take on the fading era of Dirty Harry and Eastwood’s cinematic tough-guy legacy. Clint fans will eat all of this up.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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