Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood

Release: Friday, July 26, 2019

→Theater

Written by: Quentin Tarantino

Directed by: Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino is among the biggest names in the biz today and in his ninth and apparently penultimate film he’s relying on clout more than ever to get mass audiences invested in something that he takes as seriously as Jules does Ezekiel 25:17 — and that’s cinematic history. Yawn if you must, but with QT you can safely assume you’re going to be getting something with a little personality. With Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood he’s reminding us of how great the Golden Age was, those good old days when original narratives and marquee names were actually worth a damn. More specifically, he’s harkening back to an era when creative collaboration meant even stunt doubles had a say in what would happen in a particular scene.

Sure, this grand paean to how it used to be is kind of predictable from a guy who rejected film school and yet still obsesses over just about every technical, romantic aspect of filmmaking — he’s one of those loud voices decrying digital projection and remember how he rolled out The Hateful Eight as a “roadshow” presentation, replete with intermission and everything? Hollywood is both his home and his Alma Mater, the place where he took in more films as a kid than any human being might reasonably be asked to view in a lifetime, constantly observing, absorbing, studying in his own way.

However, the way he carries out his long-gestating passion project proves a little less predictable. Dare I say it’s even . . . wholesome? Maybe I shouldn’t get too carried away.

In Once Upon a Time (the title an obvious homage to Italian director Sergio Leone, father of the so-called spaghetti western and a huge influence on Tarantino) he trades out buckets of blood for buckets of nostalgia. The surprisingly gentle, more meditative approach finds the gorehound putting the clamps on his violent tendencies, creating a more good-natured, less bloody affair that isn’t propelled by a single narrative objective as much as it is a mood, a feeling of uncertainty brought about by change. Indeed, Once Upon a Time is a different cinematic beast, chiefly in that it isn’t very beastly, not in comparison to his last three outings, a string of ultra-violent, in-your-face western/revenge thrillers beginning with the Nazi-slaying Inglourious Basterds (2008) and culminating in what is arguably his ugliest and most deliberately nasty The Hateful Eight (2015).

The timeline spans just a couple of days but a TRT that approaches three hours, coupled with extraordinary period-specific detail, make it feel like a tapestry that covers much more ground. Set in 1969, at the crusted edges of what was once Golden, the story mostly concerns the career tailspin of fictional TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) as well as the relationship he shares with his stunt-double, driver and all-around gopher Cliff Booth (a briefly shirtless Brad Pitt — contractually obligated, I’m quite sure). Their friendship takes center stage as the two professionals are forced to negotiate rapid change. This was a time when people like Cliff had more creative input in productions, where actors and their doubles were attached at the hip working on multiple projects together. Today freelancing has opened up myriad opportunities, thereby eroding that closeness and this is just one aspect of the modern industry the filmmaker clearly laments.

I mentioned earlier how big a deal the name is. Nowhere is his status as Big Time Filmmaker more apparent than in the cast he is graced with here. It’s an embarrassment of riches Tarantino somehow manages to allocate just the right way. I just named DiCaprio and Pitt and that’s only two of the three principles. Famous faces are everywhere, in bit parts and in more extensive supporting roles. Australian rep Margot Robbie joins them in a tangential role as American tragicon Sharon Tate, who moves in next door to Rick on Cielo Drive with her famous director husband, Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), setting up the much-talked about arc that puts a wholly unexpected spin on one of the darkest chapters to unfold in 1960s Tinseltown.

Elsewhere, Al Pacino plays a hot-shot agent named Marvin Schwarz (that’s SchWARz, by the way, not SchwarTZ) channelling — yes, still — Tony Montana. He’s here to present a gut-check for the sensitive actor, reaching out to Rick with an offer to take part in an Italian Western. Rick’s appreciative of Marv’s offer but outside his presence he’s inconsolable, confiding in Cliff that he believes this is a sign that his career is well and truly over. Cliff, however, would like him to reconsider, because hey, he’s Rick “f-word” Dalton, and Cliff can’t get any work until Rick does because of vicious rumors circulating the old mill about the stunt man having murdered his wife some years back. Ergo, we go to Italy, right?

Bruce Dern is in it briefly as George Spahn, the owner of Spahn Movie Ranch, the site where many westerns were once filmed, now overrun by a cult of hippies who turn out to be not exactly all about peace and love. While we’re at it, it isn’t just in the way he handles the Tate/Polanski angle where QT shows restraint (and paradoxically absolutely no mercy, if only toward those “damn hippies.”) A sidebar shows Cliff making a brief visit to the Ranch after dropping off a scantily clad hitchhiker named Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), and while he’s there he’d like to check in with his old friend and the now-blind owner to ensure he’s not being taken advantage of by these layabouts. It’s a scene pregnant with tension, a stand-off from a western wherein long, cold stares precipitate a sudden and brief outburst of violence. But Tarantino feels nothing but contempt for those brainwashed by Manson’s Helter Skelter bullshit, turning the tables on them and converting what should have been another grisly murder into something resembling a farce.

Then there are bit parts snatched up by the likes of “intrinsically 60s” Kurt Russell as a stunt coordinator/Cliff’s former boss, and a highly entertaining Mike Moh doing a bold impression of famed martial arts actor Bruce Lee; Timothy Olyphant is a co-star on one of Rick’s late-career shows; Damon Harriman, for the second time this year plays Charles Manson (albeit in a cameo here while his other appearance was in the second season of Mindhunter — it must be those eyes); and Luke Perry in what turns out to be his final screen appearance (he passed away in March). Tarantino also makes a brilliant discovery in newcomer Julia Butters, who plays a precocious child actor who takes Rick to school in on-set professionalism. All of these characters add little considerations to the world Tarantino is reconstructing — resurrecting — and while some arcs leave more to be desired they each contribute something of value.

The pacing of the film no doubt languishes. It’s not his most action-packed film ever. In fact, save for that controversial house call, it’s his least. Yet because Tarantino is so obsessively compelled to detail environments and lives it might just be his most insightful. Not a scene feels wasted or unnecessary, maybe a little indulgent in length at times, but excisable — I’m not convinced. The rich mise en scène steals you away to a decade long since buried underneath modern multiplexes touting the latest CGI spectacles, and I particularly enjoyed the little meta moments he provides, such as clips from Dalton’s most popular gig Bounty Law, or when Robbie’s Tate decides to check out a matinee showing of her new movie The Wrecking Crew at the old Bruin Theatre — the latter a nod to QT himself attempting to check out True Romance (a movie which he wrote but did not direct) when he was a young pup.

All of these details add up to the very antithesis of the movie I had anticipated when it was first announced. Once Upon a Time is proof that you can indeed teach an old reservoir dog new tricks. Or, rather, Tarantino has taught himself some new tricks and empathy looks good on him. He’s successfully created a modern fairytale out of Old Hollywood. It’s a surprising movie, one full of surprising moves but still imbued with that irascible energy of his. It’s one hell of a good time.

Margot Robbie puts her best foot forward as Sharon Tate

Recommendation: It’s a film full of intrigue for those up for a little history lesson as far as the industry and some of the early ingredients that formed the QT soup are concerned, while reports of “less violence!” and “more sympathy!” can only be a good thing in terms of attracting a broader audience.

Rated: R

Running Time: 161 mins.

Quoted: “When you come to the end of the line, with a buddy who is more than a brother and a little less than a wife, getting blind drunk together is really the only way to say farewell.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The Hateful Eight

The Hateful Eight movie poster

Release: Wednesday, December 30, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Quentin Tarantino

Directed by: Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino isn’t softening in his old(er) age. The Hateful Eight might be one of his most vicious pieces yet, an ode to the frankness of life on the frontier as filtered through the perspectives of some of the meanest, nastiest sumbitches this side of the Continental Divide.

It’s a testament to the power of Tarantino’s snappy, whip-smart dialogue that a film that takes place essentially in two rooms — a traveling stagecoach and a remote Wyoming outpost known as Minnie’s Haberdashery — passes by almost in the blink of an eye. Or in this case, with the speed of a bullet to the groin. Maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration. After all this movie runs the length of a basketball game — commercial breaks included — and it’s even longer if you experience it in the fancy-pants 70mm Ultra Panavision format, which comes complete with a little intermission.

First things first. There are quite a few things that The Hateful Eight is not. It’s not Tarantino’s most sprawlingly ambitious, nor is it his most poignant social commentary. It’s not family or date-friendly (but you knew that already), and it makes no concessions for those who were put off by the writer-director’s liberal usage of a certain racial slur in Django Unchained. As the time passes by in awkwardly disproportionate chapters it becomes a less sophisticated thing to watch. It’s not action-packed, and the writing isn’t quite as disciplined as it’s been in the past.

What it is, besides being a brilliant spin on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None — a classic whodunit wherein a group of strangers are invited to a remote estate and become suspicious of one another when they start getting picked off one by one — is the eighth reminder that filmmakers like Tarantino are all too rare. It’s a chatty chamber piece, and although it takes place almost exclusively in between the walls of a would-be cozy log cabin there’s no shortage of excitement . . . or bloodletting. Similar to Christie’s imaginative mystery thriller, viewers are complicit in the discovery process. Patiently we wait for the yarn of half-truths and three-quarter lies to fully unravel, to find out who these people really are and what their intentions are.

We’re introduced to Samuel L. Jackson’s Union soldier-turned-bounty hunter Marquis Warren, who flags down a passing stagecoach and asks for a ride to a shelter as a blizzard moves in. The horse-drawn carriage is transporting John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell), himself a bounty hunter, who is handcuffed to the fugitive Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh). They’re headed for a town called Red Rock. Don’t let the mustache fool you: dude’s a roughneck — surly and prone to violence. After some banter back and forth he allows Warren to come aboard. Soon enough they’re stopped once more by another man caught out in the cold. This is Walton Goggins’ Chris Mannix, who advertises himself as the new sheriff of Red Rock. He’s also trying to make his way back there.

The wagon pulls up to the Haberdashery and instead of being greeted by its proprietor, they’re met by Mexican Bob (Demian Bichir) who tells them Minnie has taken off for a few days. Inside awaits another three men John wasn’t expecting. There’s the polite Englishman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth, channeling perhaps a little too much Christoph Waltz‘s Dr. King Schultz). It turns out he’s the hangman of Red Rock . . . by all accounts Domergue’s grim reaper. But at least he seems nice. By the fireplace sits the cranky General Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern), responsible for murdering many a black Union soldier in the war. You could say he doesn’t take too kindly to Warren’s presence. And in the back corner sits lone cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), who is apparently waiting for the weather to clear so he can visit his mother on the outskirts of Red Rock.

The destination of Red Rock isn’t the common denominator these people share, per se, though I’m loathe to reveal specifics about what that really is. Let’s just say it’s something a little more personal.

Tarantino keeps mostly to this space in order to draw out the best (or is that the worst?) of these eight nefarious characters creatures. It’s determined they’ll be sharing the space for a few days since the weather is so bad. Soon enough the room becomes a bubbling cauldron of tension and distrust, John Ruth instigating much of it. His severe skepticism of everyone around him leads him to take precautionary measures. Domergue remains chained to his wrist. “Sheriff” Mannix constantly shifts loyalties. Warren is hostile and a notorious liar. Bob remains suspiciously quiet, and so too does the hangman. Ditto that for Joe Gage, while Domergue continues to suffer from her captor’s physical and verbal abuse.

For a film exceeding two-and-a-half hours and rarely taking advantage of its gorgeous natural environs outside, pacing isn’t much of an issue. Instead, more technical things stand out, and rather obviously. For a ragtag group of frontiersmen, these are some very eloquently spoken people. Call it a nitpick, but I prefer to call it an inevitability after paying such intense attention to what people are saying while also trying to figure out why such a wider, higher-resolution film was utilized here. Call it cabin fever. Something about the occasional verbal tirades, the overexploited art of romanticizing language, feels affected this time, almost as though Aaron Sorkin had gotten his hands on the script. (Shucks, now I sound like I don’t like Aaron Sorkin.)

But, I digress. It’s a new Tarantino offering and it’s more fun than it probably should be.

It’s also a film that almost never was. We’ve all heard the story: Tarantino vowed to scrap the project after a draft of the script was leaked late in 2014. He then considered turning it into a novel. Thankfully a live table read of the script convinced him to stick to his guns (e-hem) and commit to turning it into his next movie. Overly familiar creative flares notwithstanding, he’s once again acquitted himself the way any fan would want. The Hateful Eight is delightfully cynical, downright ugly at times and predictable in the best way possible.

Recommendation: Fans have another three hours of QT to pour over. The Hateful Eight doesn’t stack up to his weightier social commentaries and these characters are very, very difficult to like. They’re actually not likable at all but that’s one compelling angle to consider as you navigate your way through a labyrinthian web of relationships that grows ever more volatile as time ticks away. This is no pleasant winter retreat to the cabin in the woods. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 167 mins. (+20 min intermission if you see the 70 mm version)

Quoted: “When you get to hell, John, tell them Daisy sent you . . .”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The 86th Academy Awards Afterparty: Will there be pizza?

Despite my fascination with film, I consistently have never really cared for the awards ceremonies as I’ve always seen them as rather trifling procedures. The night of Sunday, March 2 barely amounts to more than a shallow beauty pageant. The proceedings inside L.A.’s famed Dolby Theater are in effect an incredibly expensive circus in which wealthy people converge on a single venue to watch their extremely well-off colleagues accepting gold statues as a way of validating that their work was actually experienced by more than just the people in that stuffy little room.

And don’t even get me started on the actual reporting on the event beforehand. Christ, the quality of the news on the Red Carpet makes a mockery of journalism to the highest degree. There isn’t an apology to be found or heard. Ever. Cameras (and conversations) prefer to be aimed towards fashion trends, intentionally converting performers into walking billboards for the young and impressionable. People aren’t really people in these moments. But that’s okay. . . .I guess. After all, these centers of attention are the same folks who gave us those great moments in the films we liked over the past year. Now it’s fun seeing Jennifer Lawrence stumble all over her real-life awkwardness. Or how about seeing sworn on-screen enemies pal-ing around together over a drink? That’s the stuff that causes the warm, fuzzy feeling in your tummy to grow intensely, apparently.

In spite of my ranting, the end-of-the-film-year presentation is actually greatly entertaining to watch. Why is that, you ask, understandably now confused.

Perhaps its partly because of the phenomenon of the fourth wall still protecting these successful and talented individuals from the claws of the public. We have a right to see our favorite action hero star stripped of his/her dramatic veil so we can get a better look into that person’s mind and see how they do what they do so well. Harrison Ford struggling to look sober during this year’s Oscars is one such insight that might well cause an obsession-fueled Twitter thread. Then there was Ellen Degeneres doing something as mundane as delivering pizza to certain members in the first few rows of the audience while Brad Pitt humbled himself by serving plates and napkins that caused us to nearly soil our pants from laughter.

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They aren’t on the silver screen at the moment, yet the likes of Amy Adams, Chris Hemsworth, the aforementioned Lawrence who can’t seem to catch a break from intentional or unintentional public embarrassment as Degeneres appeared to roast her before kicking off the ceremony this year, or a legend like Robert DeNiro — they all still possess a mystique we can never hope to chip away completely because they are in some way, shape or form still performing for us, the humble viewers. They give possibly the most honest performances of their lives before these particular cameras, but we will never get to be at the Oscar afterparty with them when they all shed the burden of the pretense and of the pomp and circumstance. And, possibly their clothes, too.

As a person who loves film I have been notorious for either accidentally or purposefully avoiding these sorts of events because a great majority of the time I either vehemently disagree with the ultimate selections or I just have no comment on what is going on at the time. There’s also that little issue I have with the false emotion surrounding it all. But nevermind that for a bit. This year I watched the Oscars from start to finish, even tapping into the Red Carpet action (which I will probably never do again, based on the intro paragraphs above). But with a few staggeringly honest acceptance speeches delivered by gold statue recipients, my faith in what these people are doing with their lives has been reinvigorated.

There were obviously the requisite number of speeches that dragged on for far too long, some that became dangerously close to sounding arrogant, and some that were borderline unintelligible. But thanks to highlights in Jared Leto (who took the stage for his snagging of the Best Supporting Actor Oscar), Lupita Nyong’o (with her remarkable work in 12 Years a Slave garnering her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar) and the potentially crowd favorite Matthew McConaughey (the McConaissance can now be officially acknowledged following his Best Actor prize) this year’s Oscars offered up strong doses of humanity and humility, a display of appreciation that extends to those who have spent any amount of time paying attention to them — that includes us bloggers! There comes that warm, fuzzy feeling again. . .

Dedicating three hours to watching the awards ceremony proves that this movie-watching business is indeed an addiction. It is equal parts exciting and frustrating knowing that famous names are to receive even greater plaudits than they have already earned in being cast into money-making machines. Such is the nature of their jobs. Everyone should save themselves a pat on the back for me. Especially Mr. McConaughey. I say good for him.


All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: google images 

Nebraska

nebraska_xlg

Release: Friday, November 15, 2013 (limited)

[Theater]

“Back in my day, sonny, black-and-white films were all we had. You had no idea if it meant a film was going to be good or not. But you always knew that corn was going to be.”

With Nebraska being the great Alexander Payne’s follow-up to The Descendants — a gorgeous film which happened to snag an Oscar trophy for Best Screenplay in 2012 — it’s natural to assume it will be a product of the utmost quality. That’s a safe assumption to make, by the way, because this 2013 effort from the Nebraska-born director — one that provides a beautiful yet somber cross-section of life in the corn belt — is, for the lack of a better word, brilliant.

Every film has its own rubric for how it shall be remembered. No matter how effective or ineffective these are, there’s always going to be that one element that sticks out like a sore thumb, the one thing that the overwhelming majority of filmgoers will remember about their experience. Some works like to boast their visual effects (what’s that one movie that Alfonso Cuarón just did. . .I hear it was a good one), while others tout their A-list cast as if it were a banquet of performances on which worldwide audiences shall feast (American Hustle; Out of the Furnace; Lee Daniels’ The Butler being some of the prime examples this year). Others still bank on the strength of their screenplay to achieve a desired effect. In these cases, the talent of the cast can range from questionable to award-winning, but ultimately the performances will fall second place to the story at hand as characters function more as chess pieces on a massive game board (The Hobbit, anyone?).

While films certainly will have great strength in other areas — the second installment in the Hunger Games franchise is a great example of a strong cast executing a spectacular story (even if it’s not an entirely original one) — at the end of the day, one element tends to outweigh the rest, becoming the take-away, ultimate last impression. Especially when talking about the casual movie goer. In the case of Nebraska, while it’s no journey to Mt. Doom or Battle Royale, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern)’s mission to get to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his prize money of one million dollars in any way possible is very much a moving story that uses actors who don’t necessarily jump off the screen but are perfect fits for the narrative at hand.

Never before has sleepytown U.S.A. seen such excitement. When Woody comes rolling through Hawthorne, Nebraska on his way to collecting what he thinks are his earned winnings via some random sweepstakes, he finds himself quickly becoming the talk of the town. Old friends, family members and neighbors alike come out of the woodwork to “congratulate” Woody on this news. Fortunately his sons David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk) reflect our concerns about his delusion. However, after seeing his father on multiple occasions walking dangerously down busy roads in an attempt to reach his destination on foot, David reluctantly drives the fragile, stolid man to Nebraska, fully aware this is a wild goose chase. In an attempt to divert Woody’s attention for just a brief bit, he stalls in Hawthorne and the family has a big get-together, mostly to see Woody. Considering his deteriorating mental and physical state, David has no clue how long his old man will be around for and figures a family reunion could end this obsession with the sweepstakes coupon.

It is in this ever-eroding town, a culture that is ingeniously enhanced by Payne’s decision to shoot in grayscale, where the problems begin to arise. It’s one thing for Kate, David and Ross to be concerned (read: frustrated) by Woody’s ignorance here, but quite another for an entire town to be let in on the secret. Despite David’s best efforts to keep it quiet, the least perceptive viewer should realize that it’s a matter of inevitability before everyone knows about Woody’s sudden good fortune.

The story is deceivingly complex, and equally so enriched with humanity. While the primary thread is about Woody trying to get his cash, this is more importantly a study of a way of life in the American mid-west that seems to be on the verge of extinction. In multiple beautifully captured shots, one can sense the dust and cobwebs climbing up and over everything, burying underneath it a longstanding history of humbled tradition, one that prides itself on its dedication to manual labor and small-town mom-and-pop business. Obviously, corn is a priority. But that’s not what the big picture is here. What’s more startling than anything is how much these places seem to have fallen by the wayside with the advent of technology in the 21st Century. This is a film set in present day, but it could just as easily have been set in the 1960s; the forties. There’s something about Payne’s choice of location that is timeless — not in the romantic sense, per se, but more so in the dog-with-three-legs kind of way.

But that last paragraph is more extrapolation than anything else. What really runs deep is the journey to discover what makes the Grant family tick.

In a place where gossip spreads like wildfire due to a lack of other avenues of entertainment, the biggest challenge facing the Grants concerns the town’s potential reaction to what we all might assume is the reality of his situation: he’s not a millionaire. He’s just a sad, confused man, desperate to cling on to something, anything in his last years. In the process of getting to Lincoln, there is so much to be discovered about the relationships between father and son, between wife and husband, and perhaps most troublingly, that of the one between Woody and his friends. . .namely, Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), a man he enlisted in the Korean War with.

Payne continues to refine his ability to balance gloom-and-doom with comedy in this Bruce Dern-led drama. This film brings tears to the eye as effortlessly as it wrings laughter from a deadpan script. A great deal of the comedy stems from Squibb’s disproval of her husband, but these moments never feel anything less than genuine. The same can be said about the particularly low moments. There is heart ache abound in this low-key drama about the true despair of aging and the importance of family. At the end of the day, Nebraska is one great example of a film relying on the strength and authenticity of its storytelling. Audiences are going to latch on to many aspects of this movie (the performances are truly excellent), but in this case, the most resonant aspect is the crushing blow to the ego that lotteries and sweepstakes provide more often than not. The money (especially the lack thereof) doesn’t necessarily make the man.

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4-5Recommendation: While it helps to be a follower of the Alexander Payne school of film, Nebraska is a thoroughly well-made film that deserves a wider audience than it’s getting. Quiet, unassuming and surprisingly emotional (surprising, given the setting), the story of Woody Grant is extremely touching. One of this reviewer’s favorites of 2013 to be sure. Go see it.

Rated: R

Running Time: 114 mins.

Quoted: “C’mon, have a beer with your old man. Be somebody.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com