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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+

Lone Survivor (2013)

lone-survivor-posterWhat do you do when the title of a movie is a spoiler? That’s the question with director Peter Berg’s reverential military action film, Lone Survivor. It’s the true story of a team of Navy Seals who had their mission compromised by a pair of unlucky Afghan goat herders. After deciding to set them free, rather than snuff them out, the Seals retreat to an extraction point, with a hundred Taliban fighters hot on their heels. When the action is firing, Berg is right at home, placing the audience in the middle of a visceral firefight that’s bloody and hardcore and pulse pounding. The rocky terrain of the country is just as deadly as the Taliban, as the Seals bounce around like ragdolls. The performances are all grizzled and finely attuned to keeping the terror of the moment at bay. Ben Foster (The Messenger) is the standout, which is a statement that’s been said with most Foster performances. At the end, I’m left wondering what is the film’s greater message. It’s retelling a military episode few people know about, illuminating the courage and bond between soldiers under fire. But in the end, all of these lives were lost because of one moral though arguably bad decision. Couldn’t they have just tied up the goatherds and gotten a better head’s start? Will the movie convince an audience that those innocent Afghan goatherds should have just been collateral damage? Does the movie critique the futility of America’s ongoing presence in Afghanistan? The futility of war itself? I doubt it, especially with Berg’s fervent appreciation of the armed forces putting their lives on the line (the opening credits themselves glorify the toughness of the Seals while also setting up an explanation why they could survive so many gunshots, injuries, etc.). Lone Survivor isn’t the heedless jingoistic propaganda piece that others critics have feared, but in the end it’s simply a sober and respectful tribute to the fallen, and that’s it. For many, this will be enough. For me, I was thrilled by the heroics but looking for more.

Nate’s Grade: B

Killer Joe (2012)

This is one nasty, alarming, but very involving movie that wallows in darkness and plays it up for laughs. Killer Joe is a dysfunctional family drama, a crime thriller, and a mesmerizing character study when it comes to the lessons of amorality. Based on the play by Tracy Letts (August: Osage County), Joe (Matthew McConaughey) is a crooked cop who works as an assassin on the side. A weasely loser (Emile Hirsch) and his family hire Joe to kill their mother for the insurance money. Things get out of hand in frequent measure, with splashes of brutal violence, healthy amounts of sex and full-frontal nudity, and a disturbing sexual act with chicken that more than earn this film its adults-only NC-17 rating. What makes the movie rise above base exploitation is its depraved, deep-fried sense of humor. There is plenty of uncomfortable laughter and guffaws. The end of the film, during a fever-pitch of violence, is so sudden, so kooky, so debauched, that my friend and I burst out laughing. Without its wicked sense of humor, and its sharp ear for working-class dialogue, the movie could be accused of wallowing in the muck. There’s also the terrific acting, chiefly from McConaughey. He gives a hypnotic performance, chilling, unpredictable, and deeply committed to retribution. When he zeroes his cold eyes on you, boy does the flesh crawl. It’s an intense performance and arguably the best of the man’s career. Directed by William Friedkin (who also directed the 2006 adaptation of Letts’ play, Bug) with brutish élan, Killer Joe is one nasty piece of work, but given the right audience, it could prove to be a perverse entertainment.

Nate’s Grade: B

Savages (2012)

Savages has been described as a “return to form” from prolific director Oliver Stone, who has spent the last decade making straight biopics (W., Alexander) and safe feel-good movies (World Trade Center). The less said about Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps the better. You never thought one of the world’s edgiest filmmakers would follow such a square path. I can’t fault people for getting excited by Savages, hoping this drug-addled crime thriller can revive the gonzo sensibilities of the man. Well, Savages isn’t going to satisfy most people, especially those looking for a cohesive story, characters that grab your interest, and an ending that manages to stay true thematically with the rest of the movie. In short, Savages is a savage mess of a movie but not even an entertaining mess. It’s just a boring mess, and that is the film’s biggest sin.

Best friends Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson) are living the American dream. They began farming their own marijuana plants, using the best seeds form Afghanistan while Chon was on tour with the military. Together, the guys have produced a product high in THC that blows away the competition. They have flourished in California. Now a Mexican cartel, lead by Elena (Salma Hayek), wants in on their business, and they won’t take no for an answer. The cartel kidnaps the boys’ shared girlfriend, O (Blake Lively), and promises to hold her ransom for one year unless the boys agree to their terms. Chon and Ben decide to use their considerable resources to put the squeeze on Elena and her team of scumbags, all the while looking for a way to rescue their shared love of their life.

It’s a lurid movie all right. Plenty of sex, drugs, and violence, but man oh man is it all just empty diversions because the movie cannot survive its trio of unlikable, uninteresting, and painfully dull characters. O, Chon, and Ben have a dearth of charisma; light cannot escape their black hole of charisma. What sinks Savages is the realization that it’s just a shoddy movie filled with a lot of skuzzy characters but hardly anyone that merits genuine interest. We’ve got skuzzy good guys, skuzzy bad guys, but where are the personalities? Where are the quirks or the hooks to drive our interest? Just having Benicio del Toro (The Wolfman) act weird and mumbly is not enough to cover the shortcomings of his character. I’ve read reviews where critics cite del Toro as “hypnotic.” I have no idea what they’re talking about. He’s just your average skuzzy bad guy you’d find in any mediocre crime picture; he just so happens to be played by Benicio del Toro. The DEA Agent John Travolta (From Paris with Love) plays is your typical skuzzy desk weasel; he just so happens to be played by John Travolta. And that’s where the movie falters. We have all these characters on all sides of the law but we couldn’t give a damn for any of them. O comes across like an annoying, privileged, faux intellectual. Chon is a meathead. Ben is an amorphous do-gooder. I don’t care about their problems and I especially don’t care about them retrieving O so they can return to their vague polyamorous lifestyle. She wasn’t worth all the effort, nor where these men worth dying over. At any point in the film, I wanted these characters to hastily die so that I might, just out of chance, come across a more interesting figure. I received no salvation.

Our trio of bland characters is made flesh by a trio of bad performances. First off, people have got to be realizing that the kind of lived-in, edgy, and compelling performance Lively pulled off in 2010’s The Town is more the exception than the rule. Stop casting her in gritty parts unless they are directed by Ben Affleck. As O, our zombie narrator, she does little to make us sympathize with her dumb plight. Then there’s Kitsch (Battleship) who is just having a record year of high-profile flops. He’s done fine acting work before, but as Chon he’s just another ramped-up hothead with little else on his mind. Johnson (Kick-Ass) has the most “flavor” of the trio, acting granola-y and with philanthropic ambitions, but he’s still just another meathead just in different clothes. All three of these characters are idiots and the young actors don’t find any way to redeem them.

Actually, I found Salma Hayerk’s character the most interesting and would have enjoyed a movie based around her dilemma. Elena’s husband was the head of a drug cartel. He was assassinated, so the duties would have fallen to her son, but in order to protect him she assumed power. She has an estranged relationship with her youngest daughter, Magda (Sandra Echeverria), who is ashamed of her mother. This, Elena tells us, makes her produ; she is proud that her daughter is ashamed. Now just look at all those contradictions and complexities inherent with this character. She’s assumed a duty she did not want, something she knows is morally wrong, but she does so in the interest of protecting her children, even if it means pushing them away and having them despise her. And because she’s a woman, any wrong move and her competitors would be ready to pounce. Plus you add the day-to-day anxieties of a life of crime, the threat of betrayal or some upstart wanting to make a name for himself, and you have the makings of a great character drama. But do we get even a little of this? No. Instead, Elena’s just portrayed as another colorful villain. The supporting cast is peopled with what should be seen as “colorful” characters, but really these people are just as skuzzy and boring and personality-free as our loser ménage a trois.

I suppose there is a certain pleasure seeing Stone return to his blood-soaked, violent, gonzo self. The man has a certain enviable madness when it comes to composing a movie, a mad fever of images and sensations. From that standpoint, Savages is at least watchable even though you would rather see most of the characters get hit by a car. I just wish if Stone was going to go nuts that he committed and went all the way, bathing this movie in his lurid predilections as we tumbled down the rabbit hole of the underground world of organized crime. If you’re going to assault my senses with excess then at least have the gall to be excessive. How can you make a lurid movie but EVERY woman onscreen engaging in sex is clothed? That seems unrealistic even for a movie this stupid. Stone seems to have no problem dragging out uncomfortable rape scenes, so who knows what the further implications of that are. There are several grisly torture scenes and some random brutality, so you’ll at least be kept awake in spurts by people screaming.

Too much of this supposed crime picture is caught up in the oppressively irritating soap opera between O, Chon, and Ben (a little part of my soul dies every time I have to type “Chon” as a main character name). The script, based upon Dan Winslow’s novel, adapted by Shane Salerno, Stone and Winslow as well, is a mess but not even an enjoyable mess. Some of this dialogue is just laugh-out-loud bad. O opens the movie saying she has orgasms but Chon, you see, has… “wargasms.” Oh ye God, that one hurt. Every time we’re subjected to O’s protracted, monotone narration the movie loses whatever momentum it may have had.

She keeps saying, “Just because I’m telling this story, doesn’t mean I’m alive at the end.” Can you promise me that? Then there’s the very stupid ending, where the movie tries to have it both ways. It gets its bloody, operatic, tragic lovers ending…. and then in the next breath a happy ending as well, a ridiculously inappropriate happy ending. At least bloody and dead would have been satisfying. It’s a cop-out, a cheat, and a mystifying way to end a movie.

I wanted Savages to be a wild thrill ride. I never expected to be bored. Even when things go off the rails, the movie struggles to keep your interest. Blame the inane screenplay that eventually resorts to a cheap, cop-out of an ending, one that barely rises above the “it was all a dream” blunder. Blame the pathetic character and their lack of personality. Blame the strange feeling that Stone is holding back. Blame the bad performances. Blame the lack of fun. Blame the overwrought nature of the title the movie twists into knots trying to give some philosophical meaning. And finally, you might want to blame yourself for thinking that this movie would be any good in the first place. When movies are this mediocre, this lacking in intrigue, you almost wish they had tipped over completely into irredeemable garbage just so you’d at least have something worth watching. Savages is a strange crime thriller that manages to assemble all sorts of exploitation elements and then fumbles them all. If this is Stone in a “return to form,” I weep for what that entails.

Nate’s Grade: C

Speed Racer (2008)

I was wary of this film from the first frame. I think the original Speed Racer cartoon is dopey and insipid. I didn’t really want to pay to have my retinas destroyed by the candy-coated color scheme of the big-budget movie. But I must say, I didn’t hate this movie and that’s a major accomplishment. That’s not to say Speed Racer is a good movie; its script is cheesy, the dialogue is silly, the comedy is dead on arrival, and many of the races end up becoming incoherent flashes of color and noise. But God help me, the Wachowskis have produced a unique movie experience that will likely induce epileptic seizures. Speed Racer has way too much plot going on for a cartoon about a kid who races a fast car. The movie reminds me in a lot of ways of the Wacky Races cartoon where the various teams have theme-driven cars. This provides for plenty of outlandish action sequences that manage to tickle the senses, that is, when the images are somewhat stable. The movie aspires to be a “family film” and with that comes the half-hearted moral message (corporations are evil) and a reminder that family is important. Did I mention there’s also a monkey that gets treated like a member of the family? The movie sometimes feels like the cinematic equivalent of an ice cream headache, but you’re unlikely to see anything like it again in the near future. That may be both a good and a bad thing.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Into the Wild (2007)

Undeniably well made, I just couldn’t emotionally connect with the main character, Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirch). Chris turns his back on his affluent parents and his bourgeois lifestyle and heads off into the wilderness to experience nature and find what has been missing in his life. Director/screen adaptor Sean Penn turns Chris into a Jesus-like figure that touches all those who he encounters on his cross-country tour that will meet its end in Alaska. I found the character treatment to be a tad naive and off-putting, and his lack of communication with his family, especially his younger sister who was in the same boat with him, seems especially cruel. And yet, the movie has its share of transcendent moments that bury themselves deep inside you, like when Chris befriends an 80-year-old widower (Oscar nominee Hal Holbrook) who is given new life. The closing moments, when Chris has accepted is fate, is profoundly moving and exceptionally performed, and this is coming from a guy that felt an emotional disconnect from the main character. Into the Wild is lovely to watch with top-notch cinematography, a fabulous score by Eddie Vedder, and fine acting by a diverse cast. I’m very impressed by what Penn has accomplished here. However, I admire the movie more than I can embrace it, and it all goes back to the character of Chris. He’s a mystery and both romantic and frustrating, which is kind of a fit summation for the movie.

Nate’s Grade: B

Alpha Dog (2007)

One part navel-gazing, one part slow-moving train wreck, director Nick Cassavetes (The Notebook) long-in-the-works true-life saga about a bunch of suburban wannabe gangsters is something of a chore because you want to punch every character in the face at multiple times. The tale revolves around a kidnapping that spirals into the brilliant notion that the best way to avoid jail time is to kill the kidnapee, never mind the fact that dozens of eyewitnesses can place kidnappe to kidnappers/eventual murderers. These kids are dumb and caught up in their machismo. Alpha Dog resembles, in many ways, Bully, but that film felt more authentic in its lascivious lifestyle. Justin Timberlake proves that he can be a decent actor, which is more than what can be said about Sharon Stone, who in one highly regrettably but unmissable moment, dons a fat suit, overacts like hell, and breaks down altogether. It’s stupefying to watch and simultaneously the high/low point of the flick.

Nate’s Grade: C

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