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 

JCR Factor #4

July, along with sweltering temperatures, brings you the fourth edition of the John C. Reilly Factor — Thomas J’s latest character study. To find more related material, visit the Features menu up top and search the sub-menu Actor Profiles.

I’m not sure if anyone has ever rated JCR’s sexiness on a scale of 1 – anything. Does anyone actually think about this actor in that way? No? Okay. We’ll just continue, and pretend I didn’t introduce this next performance in that way. . .

John C. Reilly as Reed Rothchild in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights

Role Type: Supporting

Genre: Drama

Character Profile: An adult film actor, failed poet/writer and aspiring magician, Reed Rothchild is like many a young and wide-eyed Los Angelino waiting for their break into show biz. While always on the lookout for a better gig he is, for the time being, satisfied with his contributions to famed adult film director Jack Horner’s colorful filmography. When a new actor arrives on the scene in the form of Eddie Adams/Dirk Diggler, initial tensions eventually give way to a lasting friendship that sees both young bucks jettisoning to the fore of America’s most recognizable adult film stars. Unfortunately it is a career path that proves to be just as (if not more) dangerous as it is alluring.

If you lose JCR, the film loses: Reed Rothchild — nothing more, nothing less. As much as John C. Reilly has presence in Boogie Nights, someone else with similar comedic timing and style could fill in for him and the role wouldn’t significantly change. The real strength of this film comes from its storytelling — the overarching journey of the lead(s) from the ’70s party scene and into the comparatively more gloomy and financially less secure ’80s. Reilly gets kind of swept up in the grandioseness of yet another PTA masterpiece. While his character is fun to watch interact with newcomer Dirk Diggler, Reed doesn’t have a big enough part in this film to evoke significant emotions. Count on Reilly to give a great performance but in a film crammed with mesmerizing performances he feels ever so slightly more expendable than usual.

That’s what he said: “You know, people tell me I kind of look like Han Solo.”

Rate the Performance (relative to his other work): 


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

Photo credits: http://www.rowthree.com 

TBT: The Basketball Diaries (1995)

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The fourth and final installment in the NBApril segment of Throwback Thursday is already here. Well, goodbye April. Sorry you couldn’t stick around for longer. . . . . . . . . . . And also, apologies that this month could not have ended on a better note. I guess this is just going to be one of those times where a little bit of forethought or organization to the list of movies I was planning on watching this month might have helped. A little secret: not all of the films on this feature are ones I have seen before and technically speaking they are brand-new films to me, and therefore some reviews may be different than the ones I might or could write if I had memories about the film in question. Therefore, I kind of am breaking my rules for the TBT set-up a little bit, but I’m young and unruly and get out of my way or you’ll pay, listen to what I say. And with that attitude in mind, let’s jump right into blabbering on about 

Today’s food for thought: The Basketball Diaries. 

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Release: April 21, 1995

[Netflix]

Less about basketball than it was about addiction to hard drugs, The Basketball Diaries was a tough film and an even tougher film to appreciate, much less enjoy. Though it boasted a thoroughly gripping performance from an incredibly young Leo and saw Markie-Mark transitioning nicely from hip-hop headphone to the grainy celluloid of the mid-90s, the film ultimately failed to amount to anything more than an aggressively anti-drug public service announcement.

The Basketball Diaries is the kind of movie I imagine would function fairly effectively as a freshman and/or sophomore phys-ed or wellness class educational film. The St. Vitus Cardinals might have gone down in high school legend as the definitive cautionary tale of students pondering a life road less traveled. . .for damn good reason. I

Granted, this was a fact-based adaptation — a loose one at that — of the autobiography written by Jim Carroll, who had later gone on to become a published writer after a brush with death when he fell into a serious drug addiction at the age of 13, quit his basketball team and dropped out of school.

Clearly, the film had no commitment to presenting any sort of crowd-pleasing elements considering it was charged with depicting such terrible and alarmingly commonplace poor decision-making in the underprivileged youth. This was (and remains) a disturbing reality for millions, though after sitting through The Basketball Diaries just one time, one wished they had had just a little more time to prepare themselves for the unexpected sermon that was to come.

An in-diapers DiCaprio was tapped to portray 12-to-16-year-old Jim Carroll, who’s first seen as part of an unstoppable high school basketball team in New York’s Lower East Side. Twenty-one-year-old DiCaprio imbued Jim, a young boy with few healthy outlets or interests, with an aggressive and voracious appetite for finding trouble. Jim’s refusal to play by the rules was impressive work considering it was little Leo’s fourth or fifth big-screen appearance. Jim’s friends were perhaps even worse, particularly the loud-mouthed and brutish Mickey (Wahlberg). A quiet kid named Pedro (James Madio) and the comparatively level-headed Neutron (Patrick McGaw) — ohhh!!! I get the nick-name now! — rounded out the rat-pack of tragic city-bound gadabouts.

The Basketball Diaries made one simple but glaring error in its harrowing depiction of several lives corrupted by narcotics. It forgot to create empathetic characters. Equally possibly, it refused to. Mark Wahlberg’s Mickey in particular was impossible to care about as he remained a character with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. (Rare is it in a film when one finds themselves so turned off by the characters they wind up rooting for their demise.) Jim and company fall so hard the punishing scenes later on became redundant.

The film’s sloppy, underdeveloped writing didn’t help matters either. While the stalwart performances from Leo and Markie-Mark managed to make up for whatever character depiction was also probably missing in the script, the two budding actors couldn’t save the film’s lack of true suspense-building as every step of the way was one predictable fall from grace to the next. Slumming it through The Basketball Diaries felt akin to playing a game of Mario where all you do is fall down the levels, never able to catch a break and ascend back up.

Well-intentioned, The Basketball Diaries was frustratingly one-note and challenges the viewer to the extreme in terms of offering reasons to empathize, provided the obnoxious characters and the cold indifference of their self-created realities. The script made stabbing attempts at making Jim three-dimensional at the very least, using the occasional voiceover by DiCaprio to instill some sense of passion for life that the boy still clung to, even during his most desperate days. The rest, meanwhile, remained helpless as the script damned them to their predictable fates. Since getting close to these people wasn’t possible, it felt more like good riddance than it did good-bye.

Unfortunately, the film failed to go to the more thoughtful, reflective places more often. Jim’s ability to write about his world offered fleeting moments of lucidity and even hope, though wallowing in darkness and despair was favored more often, as was relying on the cold calculations of the world to provide answers to whatever it was these lost people were looking for in life. A largely unsatisfying yet jarring film experience.

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2-5Recommendation: The Basketball Diaries is an effective piece of D.A.R.E. propaganda (with which I have no arguments against, death at the hands of hard drugs like heroin is a terrible tragedy) but it borders on being too heavy-handed and monotonous. Leo DiCaprio fans should probably see it for another good, early performance but for anyone out of the loop on this, they aren’t missing much by not venturing down this dark avenue.

Rated: R

Running Time: 102 mins.

Quoted: “You’re growing up. And rain sort of remains on the branches of a tree that will someday rule the Earth. And it’s good that there is rain. It clears the month of your sorry rainbow expressions, and it clears the streets of the silent armies… so we can dance.”

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

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