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 

July Blindspot: Swingers (1996)

Release: Friday, October 18, 1996

→YouTube

Written by: Jon Favreau

Directed by: Doug Liman

It is all too easy to assume certain things about a movie titled Swingers. Oh, how does that expression go? The project that launched the careers of both its leads as well as the director is, yes, very much a “dude-flick” preoccupied with the pursuit of happiness via the pursuit of women, but the way in which it extracts genuine, honest emotion out of such simple ambitions is really impressive.

Steeped in the Swing Revival period that swept over America in the late ’90s — a curious echo of the 1930s and ’40s when Benny Goodman was King of Swing — Doug Liman’s break-out comedy is both an homage and a movie of its era. Sampling everything from contemporary revivalist groups like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy to ’50s jump blues icons like Louis Jordan, Swingers builds much of its swagger through its eclectic soundtrack. Luckily there are performances to match the up-tempo musical stylings.

Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau are a comedic dream playing struggling actors in Tinseltown who spend their days looking for work and their nights for a good time. Trent (Vaughn) is the quintessential Ladies’ Man whose sense of connectedness to this earth is defined entirely by his gift of gab. He’s not the type to invest his energy into anything long-term, anything real. The only commitment he knows is to playing the field. His prototypical extrovert stands in stark contrast to Favreau’s Mikey who, six months after the fact, is still reeling from a break-up from a longtime girlfriend whom he left behind in New York in pursuit of his dreams out west.

Whereas Trent only looks forward to the future (and his next cocktail), Mikey can’t stop looking back. His obsession with the past has really done a number on his self-esteem and his ability to connect to others in the here and now. Favreau’s nuanced performance captures the pain of being socially graceless and, perhaps because his character is also uncannily me, should have received more than a Best Newcomer award. His A-list status today may somewhat belie his true talents. The role is proof that Favreau is an actor first and a director second. Who knew the guy could do awkward and repressed so convincingly?

After an impromptu trip to Las Vegas* fails to revive a heartbroken Mikey, Trent and a few other actor friends — Rob (Ron Livingston, also playing a version of himself as a fresh hopeful in the City of Broken Dreams), Charles (Alex Désert) and a boy named Sue (Patrick Van Horn) — decide that enough is enough. It’s time to rally around their fallen comrade. Famously the refrain becomes “You’re so money, baby, you don’t even know it.”

Though it is a collective effort, it’s really Trent who tries to instill in Mikey all that he knows about the “unwritten rules” of the social scene. However, when push comes to shove, none of the advice seems to help. His boy is too much of a “nice guy,” which concerns Trent because he knows nice guys finish last. But Swingers (Favreau‘s first screenplay) posits this is an outmoded attitude, even in the ’90s. “Finishing last” could mean meeting a Lorraine (Heather Graham, whose well-placed cameo suggests that timing is the only thing that really matters). Ever so subtly the tone shifts away from crassness and towards something approaching genteelism. It becomes apparent after awhile that there are actually drawbacks of being a Trent. It’s probably a stretch to call the film socially responsible, but its flirtation with romance is a wholly unexpected diversion.

Swingers is a movie of simple pleasures and it’s decidedly low-budget. On first watch you’ll probably notice some technical stuff like the shadow of the camera-man against the wall as he climbs stairs in pursuit of the actors. Visible boom mics in a number of shots. Some of the effects are badly dated. If you ask me, all of this adds to the purity of the experience. The movie has such a big heart it just barely manages to wear it on its sleeve. Its passion is persuasive. Its enthusiasm contagious. Swingers is a born winner. And the music ain’t bad either.

Curious about what’s next? Check out my Blindspot List here.

* Fun trivia: the scene that takes place on the side of the highway on the return trip wasn’t shot legally. Permits for shooting are required, and the production team neither could afford one nor would have ever been able to acquire one for this particular location for red-tape-related reasons. So Liman had to improvise and make it appear as though they weren’t working even though they were. Apparently as the undercover shoot took place local cops were standing by, just out of frame.

Recommendation: Fun, uplifting, unexpectedly wholesome. You won’t want to throw it on for family movie night, but if you’re going through a rough patch Swingers is one hell of an antidote. Whether you’re a Trent or a Mikey there’s a lot to be gained out of this treatise on social dynamics — and though times have definitely changed, our innate desire to find happiness in another person has not.

Rated: R

Running Time: 96 mins.

Quoted: “So how long do I wait to call?”

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.youtube.com 

La La Land

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Release: Friday, December 9, 2016 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Damien Chazelle 

Directed by: Damien Chazelle 

Damien Chazelle’s critically-acclaimed modern musical is being hailed as one of the most original movies in years. That’s not surprising given the cinematic environment into which it has been born. It’s hard not to appreciate the oasis in a sprawling desert. While Disney animation in particular continues to inject original song and dance into each new incarnation, barring one or two high-profile exceptions the traditional musical has been all but banished from contemporary cineplexes. La La Land represents a change of tone from the writer-director’s previous exploration of creative obsession, and the scope has been broadened with the way he interrogates aspects of life beyond the singular pursuit of perfection. What he presents in 2016 is a lively, upbeat jazz musical that revisits several familiar themes.

Viewed through the lens of career ambition (okay, yes — obsession), the city of broken dreams offers an uncanny backdrop. Approximately 60 L.A. locales were used, ranging from dilapidated trolley stations to infamous stretches of freeway near the bustling metropolis. Coupled with the bright, neon lights and iconic landmarks, La La Land is a romantic outing in more ways than one. It is visually spectacular, an ambition unto itself. And while many of the musical interludes won’t leave any lasting impression, two of them — the catchy opening tune ‘Another Day of Sun’ and Emma Stone‘s stand-out solo ‘Audition (The Fools Who Dream)’ — are absolutely fantastic. These are certifiable “Oscar moments.”

La La Land tosses several significant and believable obstacles in the paths of our protagonists, once more asking viewers what we would sacrifice to ensure our dreams become realized. Our story, as it were, is constructed out of the interactions between two star-crossed lovers — Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) — as they evolve from strangers with road rage to significant others. In their third romantic pairing (Crazy Stupid Love and Gangster Squad being the others), the actors feel entirely natural together. Under the guidance of Chazelle the two really are wonderful. They’re first spotted in the very traffic jam that opens the film in a surprisingly thrilling fashion. They’re not exactly amiable towards each other at first, with Sebastian blaring his horn at Mia having grown tired of the woman in front of him not paying attention to her surroundings.

Quite serendipitously the two will meet again, first at a small restaurant where Sebastian has just been fired for disobeying his manager (J.K. Simmons in a cameo) who told him explicitly not to play any jazz, only the Christmas jingles. This encounter is also far from pleasant. Later the two meet again at a couple of L.A. parties, where they could be meeting anyone. I would have rolled my eyes more but Chazelle writes so well forgiving these nagging coincidences is not only easy, it’s mandatory. Cheesiness is part of the fabric of the musical. Despite feigning disinterest in one another via the film’s obvious centerpiece — a beautifully choreographed dance number near Griffith Observatory synchronized with a setting sun that bathes the valley in royal purple — the two share an irresistible charm that reminded me of Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet’s affectionate ribbing in Eternal Sunshine.

As the two eventually entwine their lives together they attempt to motivate each other to make their dreams become realities. A passionate jazz pianist, Sebastian sees himself opening his own club one day, despite how he barely gets by on the gigs he plays right now. The aforementioned fall-out at the restaurant finds the musician relegated to playing synth for an 80s cover band at birthday parties. His girlfriend scratches her head when she sees him stooping to a new low by going on tour with a mainstream band headed by a high school acquaintance named Keith (John Legend). “Do you like this kind of music?” Mia asks during a heated exchange over a candlelit dinner. Sebastian stabs back with a reminder that her acting career has yet to take off. Refreshingly, this relationship isn’t perfect. Matters of practicality vs. idealism begin creating friction. Sebastian maintains he is doing whatever he can to make ends meet. He no longer can afford to be so idealistic.

In La La Land conviction is everything. Enthusiasm and vigor prevent the production from descending into schmaltz. It’s a quality that applies to virtually every aspect of the filmmaking process, from Chazelle’s emphatic direction to the complicated dance routines that give characters as much soul as any awards-baiting monologue ever could. From the meticulous location scouting to the cinematography that makes Los Angeles bleed colors we haven’t seen since Nicolas Winding Refn lit the place on fire with 2011’s Drive. The songs won’t make you want to sing in the rain like Gene Kelly, nor are they quite as supercalifragilisticexpialidocious as anything Julie Andrews did . . . but hey, they’re still catchy. And given the inexperience of the cast — Gosling learned to play piano and tap dance for his part, while Stone reportedly had some balance issues — the fact that we catch ourselves moving our feet in rhythm speaks volumes about the harmony of the post-production process. La La Land comes together very well, despite several familiar elements.

The film’s music is almost always fantastical, in some instances even ethereal as a lone spotlight falls on the singer of the moment while the rest of the world fades to black. But the fantasy doesn’t subtract from the authenticity of the emotions on  display.  Impressively the story stays rooted in reality, and the experience is not exactly pain-free. Chazelle is a passionate advocate for jazz music, clearly. I mean of all things, he landed on a jazz musical, in a day and age where country singers and pop stars are being manufactured on game shows. In an era of jaded 20-year-olds who think jazz is just music stuck in the past. And while thematically it feels like the writer-director is somewhat treading water post-Whiplash, ultimately he inspires simply because of the gamble he just took to realize his own ambitions.

la-la-land

4-0Recommendation: La La Land, a film with enough verve and color to supply at least five other major productions, lingers in the mind because of the fascinating combination of modern actors performing arguably outmoded roles in an era where the musical is no longer popular. It’s a film for Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone fans and jazz lovers alike. It’s a film for romantics. But if you’re heading in expecting Damien Chazelle to up his game from Whiplash, you might find yourself disappointed. Because that film was a stroke of genius. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 128 mins. 

Quoted: “You could just write your own rules. You know, write something that’s as interesting as you are.”

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 

Rules Don’t Apply

rules-dont-apply-movie-poster

Release: Wednesday, November 23, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Warren Beaty

Directed by: Warren Beaty

Toothaches. Internet trolls. Airport pat-downs. These are but a few things that grate on the nerves less than Warren Beaty’s new film.

In Rules Don’t Apply, an ambitious driver tries to make it with a devout Baptist and aspiring actress who in turn tries to make it with Howard Hughes. That’s THE Howard Hughes — aviator, film producer, and eccentric. Guess how that turns out? Really, really freaking annoying — that’s how. “O Lord in Heaven.” (Just to be clear, the religious overtones perpetuated throughout aren’t what make the film a chore to sit through, though they don’t really help.)

Beaty sort of applies the rules established by the Coen brothers in this off-beat, often bizarre and off-putting ‘romantic comedy.’ It has their comedic tastes written all over it, figuratively speaking. If it actually had been written by them, Rules Don’t Apply would surely have been better off. It’s farcical, at times to the point of slapstick and in many ways evokes the Coens’ most recent effort Hail, Caesar! IronicallyI considered that one of their lesser outputs despite its strengths, namely a nostalgia for the Golden Era of Hollywood. Beaty, serving as writer, director, co-producer and star, similarly pines for the days of the Big Studio System. In fact there is more romance in his lust for a paradise long since lost than in any of the character interactions.

In 1958 Marla Mabry (Lily Collins), a Bible-thumping beauty queen hailing from Virginia, is being escorted by Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), along with her uptight mother Lucy (Annette Bening), who has come along to help ensure her daughter doesn’t lose herself in the madness that is Hollywood. O Lord in Heaven. Frank, a chauffeur for Hughes’ many actresses, becomes Marla’s personal driver. He’s given explicit instructions to never get into a romantic affair with any contract actor working for Hughes, so of course that means he is about to get into a romantic affair with a contract actor working for Hughes. It is Matthew Broderick’s sole responsibility to keep reminding the youngster of company policy.

Broderick is but one of many tumbleweeds that wheel haphazardly, aimlessly, through the desolate wasteland of entertainment that this ultimately becomes: Ed Harris, Steve Coogan, Oliver Platt, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, Paul Schneider and the aforementioned Annette Bening all feature but collectively must account for fewer screen minutes than the number of names I just rattled off. Hard to believe there were no other up-and-coming talents that could have fulfilled such bit parts. Hell of an egotistical move to feature so many accomplished thespians and give them a single line of dialogue at a dinner table, for example. Blink and you’ll miss Steve Coogan as Colonel Doesn’t Even Matter.

We are in a time when Hughes is not well. His increasingly erratic behavior is sending up all kinds of flags indicating he is neither fit to be running a company nor flying aircraft. Infamously the entrepreneur suffered from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and pain as related to a plane crash that nearly killed him. He became reclusive and extremely difficult to work with. If there’s anything Rules does well, it’s in laying out the numerous eccentricities that made him a true enigma in his latter years. Much of the narrative is devoted to keeping Hughes in the shadows, the short-term effect of which manifests in Marla’s mother bailing for greener pastures while her daughter stays to see if something will come of it. The long term effect? Leave that to Ehrenreich’s loyal terrier.

If indicators of a good performance include how often a character gives you conniption fits, consider Beaty’s an Oscar-worthy submission. As an interminable two-hour running time plods ever onward his baffling behavior intensifies, notably in the third act — incidentally where all sense of narrative cohesion goes out the window. In some weird way Beaty’s performance is the glue that holds the flimsy bits together. Ehrenreich doesn’t fare quite as well. Frank has the personality of a brick, and his devotion to such a lunatic boggles the mind. Perhaps you, too, will find yourself shouting at the screen in an empty theater. Maybe even an occupied one. No one really comes out of this smelling like roses, but unfortunately Collins is saddled with one of the most thoroughly unconvincing character arcs I’ve seen in some time. I could go into spoilers but I’m so not interested. Suffice it to say, I think Beaty has misinterpreted what the expression ‘devout Baptist’ means.

The longer I sit on this, the more I’m convinced Beaty’s latest owes a great deal to Hail, Caesar! Substantively the two films are quite different — whereas Caesar delineated a day-in-the-life of a Hollywood studio fixer, Rules tackles a love triangle involving two people who really don’t belong together and a Hollywood luminary who uses the actress as a loophole to avoid being committed to an asylum, and thus losing his company. But if we’re talking the tangibles, the sorts of tricks the Coens used to obfuscate a fairly poor screenplay that lacked depth and any real meaning — ensemble casts, picturesque cinematography/iconic imagery — the two seem kindred spirits.

Beaty’s intentions are good. They’re also clear. Rules is another love letter to an era long passed. The man has crafted a picture with love and care, evidenced in the pastel sunsets he captures and the warm color palette that makes Beverly Hills glow in an ethereal light. And there’s something compelling about the way he presents Hughes as a very tragic character. But he’s no fun to be around, and his increasing prominence in the story makes the film very hard to like.

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2-0Recommendation: Perhaps this is one of those cases where a film’s substance becomes so overwhelmingly unpleasant and ultimately forgettable that it obscures the product’s legitimate strengths. But the film also suffers from a dearth of issues from a filmmaking standpoint. Poor editing, terrible character development and a rather convoluted plot all work against it. Also, watch out for that 42% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Just saying . . .

Rated: R

Running Time: 127 mins.

Quoted: “You’re an exception. The rules don’t apply to 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 

Life (2015)

life-movie-poster

Release: Friday, December 4, 2015 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Luke Davies

Directed by: Anton Corbijn

The spotlight shines once more upon Hollywood icon and heartthrob James Dean in the creatively titled 2015 biopic Life. Okay, so there actually is some nuance to the label. You can take it at face value but the film is more concerned with the relationship the actor had with a photographer working to produce a photo essay for Life Magazine.

It isn’t hard to see how this picture has fallen into obscurity. This is far from a flashy biopic. It’s not even purely about James Dean. Life enjoyed an extremely limited theatrical run concurrently with a straight-to-VOD release last December. Now it sits in the recesses of Netflix’s ever-deepening Lost-and-Found bin, gathering cyber dust. My finding was quite arbitrary and perhaps that is why I still feel a little underwhelmed by what it was that I had found. It almost makes me feel like I have a duty to caution those who are willfully seeking it out. Good chance this isn’t the movie you’re thinking, perhaps hoping, it’s going to be.

Anton Corbijn (The American; A Most Wanted Man) has crafted a deliberately understated account of how a genuine bond was formed between two very different individuals — one a farm boy from Indiana and the other a city slicker. Dane DeHaan, a young actor on the rise, portrays the icon while Robert Pattinson becomes Dennis Stock, a photographer for the New York-based Magnum agency who would go on to provide Life Magazine with some of the publication’s most iconic images. The year is 1955. Dean has just portrayed Cal Trask in Elia Kazan’s East of Eden and is set to take on arguably his most noteworthy role as the rebel himself, Jim Stark, later that year. The events of the film are slotted in between these two seminal productions, following the two as they travel together from Los Angeles to New York and finally to Dean’s sleepy hometown of Fairmount, Indiana.

Corbijn’s treatment manifests as a moody, introspective examination of careers in transition, and appropriately it features a pair of performances that are more charmingly awkward than awards-baiting. DeHaan in particular enjoys mumbling his lines, an approach that won’t sit well with those who viewed Dean as a more assertive Bad Boy. Nonetheless, he is good at drawing out the pain that lived inside the young star as he grappled with the irrevocable nature of fame. DeHaan treads a fine line between being someone with an ego perhaps too inflated, suggested by his stand-offish relationship with studio execs like Jack Warner (a gleefully nasty Ben Kingsley), and someone suffering a crisis of conscience. (Interestingly, Corbijn opts not to make any sort of comment on Dean’s supposed “sexual experimentation,” likely in an effort to avoid politicizing his film.)

For much of the film Dean doesn’t come across as a rebel so much as he does a diva, but there’s a brilliant scene set at the Fairmount High School prom where we realize Dean’s discomfort in the spotlight is genuine; even in this unthreatening environment he seems totally different than his on-screen persona. Perhaps because he is directly confronted with that which he misses most: a life of simplicity and innocence. In the good old days he had no Jack Warners to worry about breathing down his neck, watching his every move. He had nothing to really worry about other than tending to the cattle, banging his bongos in solitude and absorbing the work of Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley. Now he must contend with shutterbugs like Stock who can never put down the camera (and thank goodness he didn’t), Red Carpet obligations and gossip columns debating which celebrity he’s bedding on which night.

Life may not dig as deep as it could have and I can almost — almost — empathize with purists who are put off by the casting but there’s no denying that the film’s heart is in the right place. This is a tribute to a Hollywood enigma who died far too young (24 at the time of the car accident). Corbijn’s exploration of an unlikely friendship is both earnest and respectful. Intimate. An air of melancholy pervades without Corbijn ever having to resort to an E! True Hollywood Story kind of ending.

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Recommendation: Meditative film captures the iconic James Dean in his off-screen state. Life can feel a bit underwhelming in spots and there are some moments where the acting doesn’t fully convince but the film is very watchable. Another good one to turn to if you are a fan of either actor. Perhaps if you are a James Dean fan you might look elsewhere for a more definitive account. (What’s really interesting to me is how DeHaan turned the role down five times, feeling intimidated by the prospect. His wife eventually convinced him to take the part.) 

Rated: R

Running Time: 111 mins.

Quoted: “Wait a minute, wait a minute! You think you’re giving me something that’s not already comin’ my way? I lose myself in my roles! I don’t wanna lose myself in all this other stuff. And you are this other stuff.”

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.robertpattinsonau.com 

Hail, Caesar!

'Hail Caesar!' movie poster

Release: Friday, February 5, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Ethan Coen; Joel Coen

Directed by: Ethan Coen; Joel Coen

There’s a new Coen brothers film out in theaters and it is called Hail, Caesar! It chiefly depicts a day in the life of a 1950s Hollywood fixer, a man charged with ensuring that studio productions stay on track and avoid disruption or shut-down due to various intervening factors, not least of which being a movie star’s actions away from the set. Call it a function of public relations but this custodial role actually seems even more thankless.

As a modest Coen brothers fan, I bought a ticket. I watched as the film played. When it was over, I got up and headed for the exit. I got into my car and drove home. Such is the perfunctory, mechanical, obligatory, bland, boring manner in which the Coens chose to “make” their new film. This is a total head-scratcher, a real WTF-er.

All the elements seem to be in place for an uproarious, clever comedy. The talent is there behind the lens and the pens. The cast is the sort only directors with the kind of pull brothers Joel and Ethan now have can afford: Josh Brolin is the fixer, Eddie Mannix. George Clooney stars as Baird Whitlock, a name as epic as the film he’s starring in (you guessed it, Hail, Caesar!). Scarlett Johansson reinvests in her native New York accent playing DeeAnna Moran, the star of a spectacular water-themed production that will apparently involve lots of synchronized swimming, while Ralph Fiennes is a British director unhappy with a miscast  Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) in his stage drama. Frances McDormand isn’t exactly Marge Gunderson this time around but she does have the distinction of being in the film’s funniest scene (and it is great). Channing Tatum plays a tap-dancing Communist and Tilda Swinton has a double role as twin sister journalists.

Oh yeah, I think I forgot Jonah Hill but that’s okay, because so did the Coens. Hill’s cameo barely registers as it seems to have already had its time in previews that have played to death the little flirty moment he gets to have with Johansson. No harm, no foul though. At least I can say Hill is consistently compelling with the two lines of dialogue he gets.

Hail, Caesar! can hang its hat on other things besides its staffing. Visually, it’s a beautiful piece and a love letter to the Golden Age of Hollywood. A sparkling sepia filter bathes the backlots of 1950s studios in a warmth that belies the business-like approach of both Brolin and the narrative at heart. But it’s not all glamorous, for the Coens seem to be indicting Big Business while celebrating the end product, the beauty of filmic imagery and the devotion of a cast to see its completion. Hail, Caesar! is, if nothing else, confirmation that the ‘magic of movies’ really lies in the sequence and number of phone calls a studio exec happens to make. But please, I turn to the Coens to be entertained, not educated. Or maybe I came to be educated, too, but I still put my needs in that order.

The film does very little entertaining. In fact it’s a surprisingly meandering, mindless affair where plot threads begin and taper off out of nowhere; where the comedy comes in spurts and the weirdness rules with an iron fist. Hail, Caesar! is perhaps at its worst when tracing Mannix’s single biggest problem of the day: locating and returning Baird Whitlock who gets kidnapped from his own trailer. This is a subplot that goes nowhere. A group of Communist sympathizers explain to Whitlock the arrogance of studio executives and how they get off on making millions for themselves (and their higher-ups) while never properly paying those who contributed their creative talents — several of the members of this clandestine group are screenwriters, you see — thus the reason why they are holding one of Hollywood’s biggest names for ransom.

Yeah — take that, you big meanies! This arc would have been compelling had it made any effort to engage the audience but philosophical and ideological ramblings (which seem to have this weird effect on the movie star) offer a painfully obvious exit for any theatergoer not well-versed in the Coens’ tendency to wander aimlessly every now and then. This time I don’t blame those people that couple for leaving; Hail Caesar! spends way too much time indulging.

And then it leaves such little time for other stories, such as DeeAnna’s concern over raising her soon-to-be-born child and Hobie Doyle’s aspirations. Mannix offers to protect the former’s image of having a baby out of wedlock (this is the 1950s, remember) by allowing her to put her baby up for adoption until she can claim it without the public becoming any wiser. Doyle is having a hard time fitting into a more talky role and must decide if he wants the western to define him as an actor or if he wants to grow and develop into something more. At least he seems to be comfortable finding a date to the premier of one of his own movies.

There’s another half-baked story involving entertainment beat reporters Thora and Thessaly Thacker — anyone notice a pattern yet? — in which both are morbidly curious about the disappearance of Capitol’s prized possession in Baird Whitlock, and both still have questions about his legitimacy as a star in the first place. Some scandal about sleeping with a male director to get a role early in his career? What? You could almost consider the Thacker sisters prototypes of the folks over at TMZ, their ability to show up at any time and out of thin air simultaneously alarming and amusing.

The Thackers’ presence is microcosmic of the Coens’ unusually tedious throwback: at its best it is a mildly amusing, grin-inducing gossip column. At its worst it is a waste of time, with some moments so dreadfully boring it’s a wonder how a film that’s critical of the film-making process managed to keep them in the final cut.

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Recommendation: One of the Coens’ weakest efforts to date, Hail, Caesar! has its moments but too often the laughs are lost in an unfocused narrative that spreads itself too thin across an arguably too ambitious cast. That said, those who are cast in the film fit right into the scene and do well with what material they have. There’s no such thing as a bad performance here but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a cast this good fail to compel in any significant way. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 106 mins.

Quoted: “Would that it were so simple . . .”

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

Tangerine

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Release: Friday, July 10, 2015 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Sean Baker; Chris Bergoch

Directed by: Sean Baker

How I felt when I first tucked into indie dramedy Tangerine — yes, that film, the one shot entirely on the iPhone 5s — and how I felt when the last scene faded to black couldn’t have been more radically different feelings. Talk about a film that earns your empathy.

Introducing itself to the world at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and creating substantial buzz in film festivals the world over before opening in an elite listing of American cinemas in July, Sean Baker’s fifth feature plays out with genuine emotion and manifests as an eye-opening day-in-the-life of two transgender sex workers on the streets of Los Angeles. Offering transgender actresses Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor their break-out roles, Tangerine swells with emotion thanks in large part to the pair’s naturalistic, amusing and occasionally heartbreaking performances — performances that suggest these are much more seasoned actors than they really are.

The story tells of Rodriguez’s Sin-Dee Rella, who learns the pimp she’s in love with has had an affair during the time she had recently spent in prison. Her best friend Alexandra (Taylor) breaks the news to her in the opening scene, setting the wheels in motion for the rest of the film by triggering a reaction within Sin-Dee that suggests a history of confrontational, violent behavior. Tangerine has no interest in dwelling in the past however; it beats a path forward on the sun-scorched, unforgiving streets of Tinseltown where people do what they must to get by.

It might seem surprising, counterintuitive even, for someone to have such a reaction when hearing one’s pimp has been seeing other women. After all, this is the kind of movie that has no qualms with describing flesh as product, where “the only thing that matters is the hustle;” in this gorgeously rendered production the world can be so cruel and ugly. That painful reality is also what makes the film so good. It takes some adjusting to, there is no doubt about that. And that, too, is a painful reality in and of itself: this is a scene largely overlooked in the industry.

Baker’s smart not to keep the focus entirely on Sin-Dee’s vendetta. Factoring into the equation is a subplot involving Alexandra trying to get people to attend a show she’s putting on at a night club later in the evening — it’s Christmas Eve — and an Armenian cabbie (Karren Karagulian) who frequents transgender prostitutes when on the clock, with a wife and child waiting for him back at home. Indeed, the cast may not be extensive but it’s enough to suggest a world filled with all sorts of broken people in various states of — well, I would say ‘decay,’ but that seems . . . harsh.

Tangerine develops in such a way that you’re constantly questioning whether a script was involved, or if real people were grabbed off the street and asked to contribute bit parts. It’s a hybrid of reality TV and independent cinema, bearing traits of the former in the way characters talk, behave and treat one another. There can be a lot of drama, and if we’re talking strictly narratively, Tangerine boils down to little more than relationship issues. But focusing on the machinations of the plot ignores the soft tissue of humanity that lies underneath wigs and layers of make-up.

These aren’t people we start off easily identifying with or even liking all that much. It’s almost irrelevant that the characters we are dealing with happen to be transgender, though the distinction should still be made. This isn’t yet another indie featuring the pains of adolescence as a white cisgender male. The trio of key players all share in common a lack of self-control that, coupled with their uniquely challenging professions, make them worthy of pity. They may not ask for it, but they’re going to get it anyway. And it’s not the worst thing to feel sorry for people who are less innately vile as they are products of their environments, and possibly products of terrible upbringings.

That was the last thing I expected to feel for Sin-Dee when all was said and done. I didn’t expect to find myself finishing the film. That’s because I also didn’t anticipate the screenplay to become so involving that it obliterated any sense that Baker’s decision to capture everything on an iPhone was nothing more than a gimmick. In this film, we feel like we could have stumbled into the frame at any given point, not realizing what was actually going on. That’s a really cool feeling.

Tangerine

Recommendation: I don’t know if you can call it a classic, but Tangerine is an all-too-unique film even in an era where a growing percentage of up-and-coming filmmakers are electing to take vastly different approaches to filmmaking and storytelling. It’s an important film as it deals with a number of socially relevant issues and features impressive performances from stars who are also far too rare in an industry that claims to be representative of a larger population. Tangerine is as good as any independent release I’ve seen and with any luck it’s a matter of time before more films like it start making the rounds.

Rated: R

Running Time: 88 mins.

Quoted: “You didn’t have to Chris Brown the bitch!”

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

30-for-30: Trojan War

30 for 30 Trojan War

Release: Tuesday, October 13, 2015

[Netflix]

Directed by: Aaron Rahsaan Thomas

Another story lamenting how the mighty have fallen. That’s how Trojan War will look to anyone not familiar with the University of Southern California, Pete Carroll, the Seattle Seahawks . . . or really American football in general.

Carroll and his Seahawks have long been associated with some of the sport’s most recognizable brands, yet all this attention hasn’t always benefitted them. To a certain extent, that fall-from-grace trajectory is the genesis for the drama herein, although its exposure of infamous personnel (as well as famous personalities) is where the film sets itself apart.

Aaron Rahsaan Thomas, who brings much experience writing and producing popular television series such as Southland, CSI: New York and Sleepy Hollow, turns the spotlight on the former head coach of the USC Trojans, rewinding the tape to reveal what events precipitated his jump back into the NFL after nearly a decade of coaching inspiring college athletes in a part of the country where stardom isn’t exactly hard to come by. (The campus is but a stone’s throw away from the entertainment capital of the world.)

The Carroll era kicked off in 2001 and ended in 2009. In that time, he resuscitated a program that found itself on life support having struggled through one of the worst four-year stretches in USC history, a period in which the Trojans were essentially cropped out of the national collegiate football picture, failing to crack the top 20 in the national rankings from 1996 until 2000. Trojan War rushes through backstory, hastily developing the environment into which the new head coach would be stepping before slowing down to catch its breath and focusing on what happened in the early 2000s.

The 2004 and 2005 seasons are of particular interest, for these were the years during which Carroll and quarterback Matt “Lion Heart” Leinart led USC to 34 consecutive victories, tying the fifth longest winning streak in Division I football history. Consequently they’re also the years upon which current and past USC players and alums reflect with deep-seated bitterness. In the interviews with former players like LenDale White and Leinart, even Carroll himself, you can sense the discomfort and tension. And for good reason.

In 2010 the NCAA wrapped up a protracted investigation into violations involving star running back Reggie Bush (who played for Carroll from 2003-2005), and went on to hand down particularly harsh penalties against the school: USC was required to vacate all of its wins from the 2004 and 2005 seasons, including Bowl games; they were banned from participating in postseason games for two years as of the 2010 season; Bush was stripped of his Heisman trophy and his name permanently scrubbed from the record books. The school also forfeited 30 scholarships over the next three years.

For all intents and purposes, those years of dominance ceased to exist — years during which their profile had risen so high it wasn’t unusual to brush shoulders with the likes of Snoop Dogg, Henry Winkler, Spike Lee, Flea (of course), Jake Gyllenhaal and Andre 3000, just to name a few celebrities, at any given game. Blame it on Carroll, said the NCAA; he was the one who had fostered an environment that was both unhealthy and unstable. The specific language cited a “lack of institutional control.”

Yet ultimately these dark days don’t represent the spirit of Trojan War. Thomas, perhaps conscious of the pain the school is still experiencing now five years after the findings, elects to spend more time backtracking down the path to greatness that the team once journeyed throughout those years, reminding skeptics just how effective Carroll’s coaching and his squad were as they met each team with ever mounting confidence and matching up against old rivalries such as UCLA and Notre Dame with a cockiness that felt earned rather than created out of spite.

He profiles a few of the star athletes — including Bush (who appears in archived footage but never in live interviews for the documentary as he’s presumably trying to put this chapter behind him) and LenDale White, who comprised the ‘thunder’ part of the USC “thunder-and-lightning” duo — while taking time to assess Carroll’s thoughts and feelings on this part of his coaching career. Actor Michael B. Jordan narrates. Yes, it is all a little generic and clichéd but it does serve at least one purpose. The NCAA can wipe clean from the slate any set of numbers and names they like but in the minds and hearts of those who paid attention to this club, this is the kind of legacy not even the slow, inevitable passing of time can render irrelevant.

Click here to read more 30 for 30 reviews.

Pete Carroll and the USC Trojans leave the field after another display of dominance

Recommendation: Trojan War will speak louder to California football fans but it should provide a sufficiently intriguing story to those who have been fascinated by Pete Carroll’s energetic personality. It could also benefit from a longer running time but I doubt a three hour feature would capture everything about this dynamic period either. This is a pretty worthwhile option for passionate followers of the sport and it’s right there on Netflix.  

Rated: TV-PG

Running Time: 77 mins.

[No trailer available; sorry everyone.]

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Photo credits: http://www.usa.newonnetflix.info; http://www.bleacherreport.com 

Entourage

Release: Wednesday, June 3, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Doug Ellin

Directed by: Doug Ellin

There’s no denying how much the Entourage movie will fail to unite that which its namesake HBO series divided back in 2004. The cinematic revival will be regarded either as one of the more obvious examples of excessive fan service, or the heralding of a new era of one of modern television’s most meta entertainment vehicles.

There’s plenty of fuel for both arguments, though you won’t hear me complaining that there is now a two-hour long episode available in the big screen format.

In truth, the movie is likely to further polarize the two factions — those who have embraced the idea of tracing a young movie star’s personal and professional trajectory and those who haven’t — for Entourage is a properly conceived crowd-pleaser. If you’ve been along for the ride the return of Vincent Chase and his loudmouthed, fairly obnoxious New York brethren is a welcomed retreat back into the male fantasy of living dreams that once felt out of reach. Anyone approaching the material for the first time or with limited enthusiasm isn’t going to be moved to check out much beyond its pilot season. Perhaps not even beyond the pilot episode. The world surrounding Vincent Chase serves as its own self-sustaining economy; series creator Doug Ellin, even Mark Wahlberg, whose experience growing up in Hollywood is catalytic, and the fans thereof need not apologize or explain at length why the exclusivity works so beautifully.

Outside of meticulous, brilliant writing what granted the show its longevity was the camaraderie between four then-unknowns. That Entourage constantly brushed shoulders with much more recognizable names did nothing but confirm the show’s unique accessibility, a creation where movie stars are people and not just brand names. You could almost reach out and touch these individuals through the screen. If it’s not easy to identify with those who earn multi-million dollar paychecks (and it’s not), then the juxtaposition of ‘stars’ like the fictional Chase brothers alongside, say, Scarlett Johansson or in the case of the movie version, someone like Billy Bob Thornton makes for interesting career comparisons. That’s of course if you’re into that sort of thing.

Entourage may be four years “in the making,” though it feels as if no time has passed since we left Vince (Adrian Grenier), E (Kevin Connolly), Turtle (Jerry Ferrara) and Johnny Drama (Kevin Dillon) to their own pervy devices. That’s primarily because the film manifests as merely an extension of the same narrative that saw Vince grow from a new kid on the Hollywood block into a true celebrity, maturing through all manners of drug-addled self-aggrandizement and sexual encounters designed to separate the movie star from the individual.

Why there is this indignation that this extended episode doesn’t offer more than . . . well, more of the same, is anyone’s guess. The day-in-the-life experience would never work as a production with a singular narrative focus. The slightest deviation from what has worked so well in the past wouldn’t feel natural. Characters of flesh and blood, despite their materialistic obsession and an apparent preference for misogynistic lifestyles, have endeared themselves to those who understand that Entourage represents and values loyalty, friendship and dedication more than the sheen of its surface suggests. Rather than exaggerating these people in a story more befitting of a feature film, Ellin knows that the only way forward is to continue exploring how these individuals interact with a fictionalized and dramatized Hollywood landscape.

In 2015 Vince and his bros are wealthier than ever. It’s also easier than ever to fail in identifying with the stress and tension shared amongst the crew, as they all have risen to such prominence on the scene. That won’t stop us from having a good time with them, though. Ari the super agent (a never better Jeremy Piven) is trying to reconcile his professional and family life the best way he knows how. He’s left the agenting racket behind and currently runs his own studio. His priority is enabling Vince to rise to the ‘next level.’ Presumably this means becoming even more famous than he currently is — some kind of awards recognition would be nice. Vince wants to update the Jekyl and Hyde fable by not only starring in the project but directing it as well. It’s a decision that concerns Ari as much as Vince’s best friend/manager.

Turtle and Drama are similarly surprised by the ambition, especially given the position it would put all of them in should the film fail critically or commercially. Of course, since Turtle sold his tequila company to Mark Cuban it’s really Drama who is most concerned about that whole living by the freeway situation. After all, he’s still the one trying to break through in the industry. Vince’s Hyde represents the first investment Ari would be making as studio head, so what’s at stake is painfully obvious. The stakes are no different than before, and not really much higher, despite insistence from both Entourage‘s writers and performers that they are. Thornton is in as Texan billionaire financier Larsen McCredle, and along with his entitled son Travis (Haley Joel Osment), he represents the big money; the underbelly of the business of entertainment. While the pair are a welcomed addition to the ever-expanding list of extended cameos, Thornton and Osment do little to escape the mold of Entourage‘s conflict creation and resolution.

Turtle finds a new potential love interest in MMA fighter Ronda Rousey, while Drama is once again humiliated thanks to a viral video he unwittingly creates with all of his pent-up anger and aggression. E finds himself in an uncharacteristically awkward position when his bedding of two different women in the space of 24 hours yields some rather unsavory consequences, while Vince carries on getting most of the attention from male and female fans alike.

Yes indeed, very little has changed. Yet at the same time Entourage represents another leap forward in the maturation process of each of its players. The pursuit of women, prestige and boatloads more money may not be the most profound representation of human nature but it is consistent. And it all still rings true to the lifestyle these people have embraced since leaving Queens. It’d be ridiculous to say the wait has been killing anyone since Entourage went off the air in 2011 (though I’m sure a few diehards are claiming this to be so), but it’s certainly fun having another opportunity to dive back into this outrageously excessive culture. I’m sorry that I’m not sorry about my fascination with it.

Recommendation: Entourage is unabashedly a continuation of the series that became one of HBO’s most popular, and as such fans have a lot to look forward to. The film’s greatest weakness, I suppose, is its inability to offer anything to those unfamiliar with it or who couldn’t quite get into even the most popular episodes. This is very much an exclusive film and I understand completely the antipathy that will rise in the wake of its release.

Rated: R

Running Time: 104 mins.

Quoted: “I’m telling you. Because it is your job, along with going over budget and being short, to tell him these things.”

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

TBT: Remember Blockbuster? Yeah, it’s still around

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Today’s Throwback post is just a wee bit different. Instead of ranting/raving about a movie from yesteryear, I’d like to go back and revisit some of the old avenues of moviegoing, during a time when I didn’t go to the theater as often (primarily because I was in school. . . well that, and I probably couldn’t get into most movies that were any good at the time because I was underage).

The thought dawned on me a little while ago about how little I so much as even think about renting movies from places like Blockbuster and whatever chains are still around in “fierce” competition with it. I still don’t have a Netflix account, but I’ll be looking to get one soon so renting films will be THAT much more convenient. With that said, I want to go back to a time and place where all we had were the stores to go buy/rent/check out stuff that’s just come out on DVD/VHS. In the process, I’m probably going to be very nostalgic and reminisce quite a lot — by definition that’s what this thread is all about — so I apologize if this becomes too emotional for anyone. . . .

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Opened: October, 1985 (Dallas, TX)

[Store]

Remember walking into that immensely packed store full of shelves that were cluttered with DVD, VHS and video game titles and packages? The smell of all that collective plastic and — yes, the carpets — are forever seared into my nose’s memory. It was the same feeling I believe people get when they enter old libraries — being amongst a collection of creations, some made for informative purposes, some for simple, pure escapism. Blockbuster is hardly as big as a library, but it may as well be the library of home video. The blue-and-yellow partially-ripped ticket graphic that comprised the company logo is one of my favorite logos from back in the day. It still is today, but unfortunately I see fewer and fewer of these signs. This is due to a couple of things changing: chiefly, the way we consume. The advent of Netflix, Redbox and other similarly convenient avenues through which we rent and purchase our movies — hello, streaming — make going to Blockbuster seem like you’re going out of your way to get a movie.

Secondly, these stores have been closing left and right. In 2004, Blockbuster hit its peak with over 9,000 stores in the United States. As of this year, that number is down to 500. I’m sure Knoxville, TN is hardly an exception either. There is still one in Farragut, where I grew up, and I think a few more are dotted around the area but man is it easy to forget that they are there now. While they still have over 2,500 stores worldwide, they no longer dominate the block as they once did. I think I’ve bought more movies from Wal-Mart than I have ever rented anything from Blockbuster. (Sorry, buddy. It’s true.)

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Even despite the store’s prolonged, if not inevitable, decrease in popularity, Blockbuster in the 1990s could have been the last bastion of the “classic family rental experience” (if there is such a thing). I think of it as the kindergarten of moviegoing from which I’d go on to realize how much I love film as a medium and a form of entertainment. When a competing chain (Hollywood Video) was constructed across the street, it got no love from the Little family. We continued to make our trips to the land of blue-and-yellow. (I think that chain is now defunct, as it was bought out in 2005 by Movie Gallery.) Aside from the obvious convenience of being able to order/rent movies online now and at good old Redbox, perhaps no experience can rival what it was like going into a Blockbuster and rummaging around through their seemingly endless shelves, searching for the perfect late-night entertainment (late night at the time meaning, like, 9 or 10 p.m.) The checking out process would rarely finish up without me insisting on buying some candy at the counter to go with it.

Alas, those days are long gone. Despite my fond memories of Blockbuster visits, it’s really now that is the time to rent — rent cheaply and rent a lot! If you’re going to Redbox, you may as well pick up a couple of titles since it’s all of $1.29 (I am irked by the fact that prices continue to go up on these, it used to be $1.09) per day that you keep hold of them. Netflix and other similar online/game console features allow you even more control over how much and what you want to watch on any given evening. If you watch movies on Netflix online, it’s even more portable. Take some flicks to go with you on that long drive back home. Flixter is a convenient new thing I’ve gotten into being an active visitor on Rotten Tomatoes. I’ve earned a few free downloads including The Perfect Storm, The Iron Giant, and Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery.

I’m certainly not unhappy about the new options we have today. It IS incredibly convenient with the number of different ways you can obtain. . . stuff, and with any luck it can be less expensive at times as well. I know Netflix continues to raise their monthly rates, and the price on Redbox dailies have increased by two dimes but hey, who’s counting. It’s still damn affordable; moreso than the $12 or $15 at the box office for crying out loud. And the best news of all is that stores like Blockbuster Home Video are still around for you to pop in every once in a while to see what you may have missed in theaters, or to see if there’s something random out there you might be bold enough to try without knowing anything about beforehand. This may be one more edge these stores might still have over Redbox et al: diversity. I can’t say for sure, but I know that with each trip I take to Redbox (granted, I go A LOT) the selections seem to be more limited each time. They only seem to hold about 200 or so titles, and I guarantee the blue-and-yellow holds far more than that. There’s probably that many in the horror section alone.

If ever you’re feeling in the mood for browsing a physical library of DVDs, video games and other stuff, the doors to Blockbuster will be wide open — mainly because there aren’t too many folks traveling through them! But there’s no doubt the game has changed for these companies. It’s tough to imagine it getting any easier for them, either.

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But hey, what about you and your relationship with Blockbuster —

What/how was your first Blockbuster experience? When’s the last time you went, and do you remember what you rented? 

How many stores are left where you live? Do you go there at all? 

Do you use other outlets such as Netflix and Redbox? How often do you go out to see movies at the theaters, knowing there’s a cheaper option — renting at a later date? 


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Photo credits: http://www.wikipedia.org; http://www.salon.com; http://www.flickr.com