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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+

The Final Storm (2009)

Famously detested film director Uwe Boll finally tackles a subject that many film fans, and video game aficionados, felt he could possibly be the harbinger for – the apocalypse. Yes, in our apocalypse-drenched times with the bottoms falling out of economic markets and civil unrest, it was only a matter of time before Boll decided to put his unique German stamp on the end of the world. Usually we associate a feeling of dread with the apocalypse, akin to the feeling of dread whenever somebody turns on a Boll movie. Except Boll’s apocalyptic entry, The Final Storm, is a direct-to-DVD oddity that actually works for a while but ultimately fails like other Boll movies. But here’s the funny thing – it’s not Boll’s fault.

Tom (Steve Bacic) and Gillian Grady (Lauren Holly) ditched their big city lives to raise live on a farm out in the country. The TV is filled with apocalyptic flair: riots, fires, strange weather, radiation leaks, power outages, etc. Over the night, a ferocious storm knocks out the family’s power. Their dog runs off into the night and a mysterious stranger collapses on their doorstep. Silas (Luke Perry) says his family used to live on the Grady farm, but he can’t remember much else. Tom is convinced (somehow) that Silas is no good, whereas Tom’s wife is happy to accept a guest that will agree to do housework. When the Grady clan, plus Silas, enters into town they find it deserted. People seemed to have vanished overnight, except for the violent gang roaming the town. Silas, a man of faith, is pretty confidant that God’s Rapture is upon mankind, but Tom goes back into town once more to seek answers about the world and about Silas’ family past.

For a while there, The Final Storm actually presents a pair of intriguing mysteries that keep the mind occupied: 1) Who is Silas, and 2) What has happened to the outside world? The world has pretty much disappeared; neighbors are gone, the police station has half-drunk cups of coffee and half-eaten donuts. Tom keeps trying to find a rational explanation for what is happening, arguing that the empty town was evacuated as a precaution. But a precaution against what exactly? Something major is underway or has already taken place. Ever since the heavy storm, there have been no birds singing or crickets chirping, no real noises of any kind. Silas is pretty confidant that it’s the end of the world and says that all they have to do is “stack up the chairs and turn out the lights.” Boll places us in the family’s camp; we only know as much as the beleaguered family trying to make sense out of the unexplainable. Canadian screenwriter Tim McGregor (Bitten) is telling a worldly event from a small perspective, trying to personalize the apocalypse. There are no big special effects sequences a la 2012 where the earth swallows cities whole. There is only uncertainty and an overall dread that something is coming but must be waited for. It’s an unsettling thought and played out with enough Twilight Zone –level ambiguity to keep the audience guessing and sticking around for answers.

A general complaint is that nobody seems to react about, you know, the End of Days. Animals and people disappeared over night. Certain townspeople are left behind. Why? Why were others taken and others not? How exactly does that one get explained (in the Left Behind movies, they comically tried to explain the Rapture as “radiation”)? The only one who shows any sign of concern is Gillian, probably because she’s slotted into the thriller female role and thus needs to express concern and eventually need saving. Tom is too preoccupied with his paranoia over Silas, and Silas is supposed to be mysterious so he reacts like he always knew the apocalypse was right around the corner. Even Graham (Cole Heppell), the Grady’s son, seems to be more concerned with his missing dog than the end of all existence. If only everybody was this blasé about the End of Days.

But then there’s that other mystery. Silas shows up at the Grady family home the night of the intense thunderstorm. He says he can’t recall how he got there, per se, and his body is covered in Biblical tattoos. Silas also appears to have some sort of insight into what’s happening in the world. He even tells Graham that his dog, which ran away during the storm, is dead. He’s so certain and preoccupied with making a nice grave marker for the dog that I almost started guessing that Silas was the dead dog incarnate. Seriously, the movie really tries hard to present the illusion that Silas has some sort of ephemeral connection to what is happening, some sort of understanding that goes beyond knowledge of Scripture.

And then the last 20 minutes of the movie reveal that Silas is … (spoiler alert) just some dude who killed his dad and escaped from prison. The Grady home is Silas’ old family home. So the guy who Tom kept saying was dangerous, who showed no real signs of being unbalanced or anything other than courtly and helpful, is revealed to be your standard killer on the loose. This is where The Final Storm utterly falls apart. These characters should be reacting with more alarm about the end of the world. Perhaps McGregor was trying to illustrate how extreme situations affect us, and how jealousy and paranoia can take hold as a means of comfort and survival. But I don’t buy that. First off, it rewards Tom for his unchecked paranoia that had no basis in reality. Silas fixes the roof, helps fend off attackers in town, and chops wood, but it all just makes Tom angry. The last 20 minutes is Silas fully embracing his villainy, the stuff that didn’t show any previous signs of existing. Silas is one big red herring and the movie shifts gears so quickly and absurdly to fit in “super able killer terrorizes family clan” mode. Silas gets frisky with Gillian, asking her to bring in hot water for his bath while he’s in the tub (it’s like an Amish Body Heat). Then he goes full crazy and tries to hand Tom in a tree. Eventually, Silas is set on fire and stabbed with a pitchfork. Then the family stares into the sky and watches as stars get blotted out and the universe collapses. Where is the connection to the apocalypse? The two storylines don’t seem to mix when there is no greater connection. It feels like an ordinary “dangerous drifter” story weirdly set against the backdrop of the apocalypse. Why connect these stories if there is no relevancy, McGregor? It seems like an awfully big waste of time.

Luke Perry (TV’s first Beverly Hills 90210)  and Lauren Holly (Dumb and Dumber) don’t seem too shocking to star in a Boll movie when you remind yourself that this isn’t 1996 and neither star has exactly been in high demand since their zeniths. That’s the Boll casting way: catch a falling star. Perry is actually pretty good. He has this serene nature to him that regrettably makes him seem knowledgeable, until you realize that his secret he’s hiding is mundane. He has a slight creepiness brought out through his serenity, but then he gives in fully to malice when his character indulges the dark side. Holly’s character is mostly the worried mother figure, the concerned type who widens her eyes and dribbles her lips to denote said worry. There’s little else to her character, though McGregor tries to come up with some weak back-story. Holly goes in and out of a Southern accent but is generally decent at being wary. What is perhaps the most perplexing is that Holly agrees to get naked for a Uwe Boll movie. She takes off her shirt during the first of two eventual sex scenes with her husband (the second one seems even more dubious against the backdrop of the apocalypse). Holly has done nudity before on screen, but I think this was her first chance to show off recent surgeries (check out 1993’s Enter the Dragon to compare the difference). Anyway, it’s a point of excitement for any NCIS fans out there that can still feel something below the waist.

As for Boll, this is one movie that I can honestly say is not his fault. His direction doesn’t exactly elevate the material but at the same time he doesn’t get in the way of the mysteries. I was genuinely interested in discovering what has happened. I figured a religious explanation was going to be the climax, especially after we witness a blood-red moon. But it’s not Boll’s fault that the movie collapses at the end when it feels the need to endanger the family by cribbing from slasher movie rules. Boll’s direction is fairly invisible, though a few shots seem to go on much longer than necessary. The entire production feels like a TV-movie just with a few more naughty words. I feel like Boll is getting a better command of how to direct actors because Holly, Perry, and Bacic (TV’s Big Love), who actually is the best actor of the bunch, all give decent if underwhelming performances. But it wouldn’t be a Boll movie without some form of imitation. I think McGregor and Boll were trying to create their own version of Cormac McCarthy’s widely revered, The Road. There’s an unidentifiable apocalypse, a father and son, roaming bands of desperate gangs, and the general unease of futility creeping up. Too bad that Boll’s movie

The Final Storm isn’t necessarily a good movie by most standards but by Boll’s standards it rises to the top of the junk heap. The supernatural apocalyptic mystery is clearly the most interesting aspect, far more interesting than Silas becoming your standard movie maniac terrorizing a family. Has he no consideration? It’s the end of the world, man. Leave land squabbles for the day after the apocalypse. This unrelated side story pretty much derails the movie during the last act, jettisoning the apocalypse for lousy thriller fare. Boll’s direction lets the story play out to its potential and we feel the pull of the mystery, the longing for discovery and answers, and then the answers end up being far less than satisfying. The Final Storm is probably a little too slow for its own good, which furthers my hypothesis that McGregor had half a story about a crazy drifter and thought, “Well, I can’t finish this. I’ll throw together some end of the world stuff and call it a day.” Boll seems to be advancing as a director; the last few movies have become more capable. This is the first of his thirteen movies (and counting) that I’ve reviewed that I can say, without a hint of seething irony, that this movie sucks and it’s not Boll’s fault. Of course, you’re still left with a movie that sucks.

Nate’s Grade: C

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