ONCE UPON A TIME … IN HOLLYWOOD (2019)

July 25, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Hippies, westerns, short skirts, pompadours, catchy pop songs … all have (mostly) disappeared from our world. Back to save the day and the memories, and twist a little history, is Quentin Tarantino, the ultimate film geek. His latest reminds us of a bygone era of movie stars and old school filmmaking … a once beloved industry which has been described as being on life support. There have been plenty of big screen love letters to Hollywood, but few if any, were filmed with so many personal touches and call-backs to the director’s own films.

In keeping with the request from Mr. Tarantino, this review will not include any spoilers or details that might negatively impact anyone’s initial viewing of the film. It’s a reasonable request since the film is so unique and literally packed with nostalgia, sight gags, and historical bits and pieces – some accurate, some not so much. There is a lot to take in and process, and the full impact of the initial viewing might result in awe, shock or disgust … and maybe even all of the above. So this will be a pretty simple overview peppered with some insight that should enhance rather than spoil the experience.

The film covers about 6 months in 1969, but in reality, it all takes place (at least what we see on screen) in 3 days. Leonardo DiCaprio (possibly his best ever performance) plays Rick Dalton, an actor who had a hit (fictional) TV western series in the 50’s and 60’s entitled “Bounty Law”. Since the show ended, Rick has been unable to make the successful transition to movies. For comparison, think of Clint Eastwood, Steve McQueen and Burt Reynolds – all actors in TV westerns who found greater career success in movies. Brad Pitt (the epitome of cool) stars as Cliff Booth, Rick’s stunt double, friend, driver, handyman, etc. While Rick is desperate to find the next stage of his career and fend off being forgotten, Cliff, a Vietnam vet, is accepting of his lot in life. Rick lives in a swanky Hollywood Hills home next door to hotshot director Roman Polanski and his starlet wife Sharon Tate; and Cliff lives in a trailer behind the Van Nuys Drive-In with his well-trained Rottweiler Brandy.

There are multiple parallel stories to follow, and a key one involves the aforementioned Sharon Tate. Margot Robbie nails the role and bounces about town with the energy and sweet aura that we imagine she possessed. All 3 of the lead actors – DiCaprio, Pitt, Robbie – have knockout scenes that I’d love to be able to discuss, but I’m not sure how without giving away too much. What I can say is that each of these three talented actors prove that movie stars still exist.

This is Tarantino’s 9th film as a director (he counts the 2-part KILL BILL as one film), and he claims he will stop making films after number 10. There are multiple features we can count on in a QT film, and a ridiculously deep supporting cast is one. Going through each of the characters played by actors you will recognize would take a page and a half, so I’ll cover only a few here. Margaret Qualley is a scene stealer as Pussycat, one of the Manson family girls. You likely remember her from the recent “Fosse/Verdon” or “The Leftovers”, and here she fully embraces the hippie look and spirit. Emile Hirsch plays hairdresser Jay Sebring, one of those in the house with Ms. Tate on that fateful night, and Mike Moh plays Bruce Lee so convincingly that I was momentarily confused when he took off his sunglasses. Also making appearances are some Tarantino regulars: Kurt Russell (as a stunt coordinator and narrator), Michael Madsen (as an actor), and Bruce Dern as George Spahn (a late replacement after Burt Reynolds passed away). Others of note include Maya Hawke (Uma Thurman’s daughter), Austin Butler (recently cast in the title role of Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis biopic) as Tex Watson, Rumer Willis (Bruce’s daughter) as actress Joanna Pettet, Damian Lewis as Steve McQueen, Al Pacino as agent Marvin Schwarzs, Dakota Fanning as Squeaky Fromme, and the late Luke Perry as actor Wayne Maunder (“Lancer”). 90 year old Clu Gulager (“The Virginian”, THE LAST PICTURE SHOW) makes an appearance, and Nicholas Hammond (Friedrich from THE SOUND OF MUSIC) tears into his role with gusto as director Sam Wanamaker. There is even a TV Guide cover featuring the late great character actor Andrew Duggan (“Lancer”). Some of these, and many more, are like cameos, but it’s still fascinating to see the faces.

1969 was 50 years ago, and Tarantino does a remarkable job of recreating the look of Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood Boulevard, Cielo Drive, and studio backlots. Much credit goes to Production Designer Barbara Ling and Set Decorator Nancy Haigh (frequent Coen Brothers collaborator and an Oscar winner for BUGSY). Arianne Phillips does a tremendous job with the costumes that look natural for the time period, and not like something right off the wardrobe racks. Three-time Oscar winning Cinematographer Robert Richardson (HUGO, THE AVIATOR, JFK) is back for his 6th Tarantino film, and he captures the look and feel and vibe of a time that is so personal to the director.

It’s been three and a half years since THE HATEFUL EIGHT, Tarantino’s most recent film, and probably his worst received. This one is clearly personal as it captures the time and place that he fell in love with movies. The dichotomy of rising starlet and fading cowboy as neighbors is a brilliant way to make a point about times changing. This was a time of transition in the United States – a new culture was upon us, and whatever innocence remained, was surely snuffed out on a hot August night in 1969. As usual, his use of music serves a purpose. We are treated to Roy Head, The Royal Guardsmen, and Paul Revere and the Raiders, among others. QT also shows us plenty of bare feet (another trademark). What is unusual is that the film lacks the trademark mass dialogue. This one kind of meanders … right up until it doesn’t.

Quentin Tarantino is a living, breathing film geek (that’s a compliment) who has earned the right to make the movies he wants to make. This one took him a lifetime to live, 5 years to write, and it will take you 161 minutes to watch. It was warmly received at Cannes, but no one can expect to “catch” everything Mr. Tarantino has served up in one viewing. That said, one viewing will likely be one too many for quite a few folks (especially many under 40 who have no recollection of this Hollywood). Some will categorize this as an overindulgent nostalgia trip for movie nerds. And they are likely correct. But for those of us who complain that too many movies are remakes, re-treads and comic books, there is no denying Tarantino delivers a unique and creative viewing experience – and it’s not meant for everyone.

watch the trailer:

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TANGERINE (2015)

June 13, 2015

tangerine Greetings again from the darkness. It’s hard to imagine a better choice for opening night of the 4th annual Oak Cliff Film Festival. After all, this year’s theme is the “No Wave Movement” of the late 1970’s, and writer/director Sean Baker’s most recent film (and a Sundance favorite) is the perfect complement.  Co-written with Chris Bergoch and filmed entirely on iPhone 5s’ (with cinematic apps), this gritty, no-frills film spotlights real problems of real people on a real day … on the real streets of Hollywood and Los Angeles.

Personally, I haven’t seen many (ok, any) films that focus on two transgender prostitutes (both, persons of color).  However, the exciting thing is that the story pays little attention to the vocation of Sin-Dee and Alexandra, and is more a story of friendship, heartbreak, and the sub-cultures that make up a particular community of the L.A. area.  This is not the glitzy/celebrity side of Hollywood, but rather the underbelly of a melting pot city where the paths of transgender streetwalkers and Armenian cab drivers intersect.

Sin-Dee (Kiki Kitana Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor) are opposite personality types, but clearly good friends as they chat while splitting a donut in the opening scene. We quickly learn that Sin-Dee is fresh out of jail after serving 28 days, and she doesn’t react well to Alexandra’s news that their pimp (and Sin-Dee’s boyfriend) Chester (James Ransone) has been cheating with a “natural” woman (played by a very talented Mickey O’Hagan) while she was incarcerated. A woman scorned provides the energy of the film as Sin-Dee tracks down this mysterious girl whose name starts with a “D”. It also provides new meaning for dragging someone all over town (kudos to Ms O’Hagan for the physicality and bruises).

The sassy banter is filled with brutal put-downs and smart-ass comebacks, as the three actresses play off each other as if loaded with short-fused fireworks. The story with taxi driver Razmik (Karren Karagulian) shows a family man drawn like a magnet to the world of Sin-Dee and Alexandra … he even finds a reason to skip out on Christmas Eve dinner with his family. His mother-in-law Ashken (Alla Tumanian) is most suspicious of his activities, and that leads to the frenetic and hilarious confrontation at Donut Time.

Many individual scenes are funny, while others are tension-filled. There is even a scene in Razmik’s cab featuring veteran actor Clu Gulager (“The Virginian”), and Armenian celebrity Arsen Grigoryan plays another taxi driver. The acting throughout is strong and humanistic, and the iPhone photography is shocking in its depth and range … we would never suspect the “equipment” being used. This approach allowed for the organic feel of the street – think of Banksy making a movie … clandestine with no sets (or permits). Baker’s style is reminiscent of John Waters and John Cassavetes, and that’s quite a compliment.  The film also features the pitch perfect description of Los Angeles: “a beautifully wrapped lie”.

watch the RED BAND trailer (contains inappropriate language):

 

 

 


THE LAST PICTURE SHOW (1971) revisited

September 27, 2013

last pic1 Greetings again from the darkness.  Tuesday night was a real treat for this movie lover.  Thanks to the Dallas Film Society, Frost Bank and Alamo Drafthouse, the first in a Texas-themed film series was presented … The Last Picture Show.   As I have stated many times, seeing the classics in a theatre goes far beyond reminiscing. It is experiencing the best of cinematic art in the forum its creators meant for it to be seen.

Forty-two years ago, director and co-writer Peter Bogdanovich and writer Larry McMurtry (screenplay and novel) assembled a cast that blended veteran stage, screen and TV actors such as Ben Johnson, Cloris Leachman, Ellen Burstyn and Eileen Brennan, with an energetic and fresh-faced group of relative unknowns such as Jeff Bridges, Timothy Bottoms, Randy Quaid and Cybill Shepherd.  It was the first screen appearance for Quaid and Shepherd (who had been a successful last jeff cybillteenage model), as well as Sam Bottoms (Timothy’s brother) who plays Billy, the smiling, sweeping mute boy who so adores Sonny and Duane.  Of course, Bridges had been acting off and on through his childhood thanks to his dad Lloyd, but this was his breakout role.

It’s not unusual for this film to be pre-judged as some simplistic, outmoded black and white movie with no relevance to today’s world.  In fact, a better argument can be made that this is one of the finest commentaries ever made on human nature, friendship, growing up, mentoring and personal dreams.  You might wonder how a story that takes place in some tiny, desolate, wind-blown rural Texas town in 1951 (the start of the Korean War) has anything to do with society today.  The small town setting actually strips away all distractions of today’s stories and focuses on what makes people tick … why they do the things they do.  We see the strong, the weak, the disabled, the rich, the poor, the innocence of youth, the melancholy middle-aged and the impact our decisions and actions have on others.  It’s easy to ask “why do they stay” or “what makes life worth living” in Anarene.  Those same questions are asked by many people every day in any town or city you can name, regardless of size or location. This is also one of those rare movies that causes your outlook and perception to change depending on your age.  When I first watched, I was seeing through the eyes of Sonny (Timothy Bottoms), while now I relate much more to Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson).  Not many movies have that kind of generational power.

last ben The film was nominated for 8 Academy Awards: Picture, Director, Cinematographer, Screenplay, Supporting Actress (Ellen Burstyn), Supporting Actor (Jeff Bridges), with wins for Supporting Actress (Cloris Leachman) and Supporting Actor (Ben Johnson).   The French Connection was the big winner that year, and other nominees included A Clockwork Orange and Fiddler on the Roof.  What a year!  Ms. Leachman and Mr. Johnson (pictured left) are both heart-breakingly terrific in the movie. Johnson’s scene at the fish tank is mesmerizing and he perfectly captures the wistful wonderings of so many middle-aged men who feel like life has passed them by.  I’ve often interpreted Sonny and Duane as the two sides of Sam the Lion (what he once was and what he is now). Johnson passed away in 1996, but used his wonderful slow drawl and strong presence in such films as The Wild Bunch, Dillinger and many John Ford westerns. Ms. Leachman (still working today in “Raising Hope” after striking it big in “Mary Tyler Moore” and Young Frankenstein) generates such empathy from the viewer as she re-discovers a reason to live.  She is also the key to what I consider one of the most powerful closing scenes in cinematic history.  As for the others, Jeff Bridges and Ellen Burstyn are both in their 5th decade of Hollywood stardom and have each won Oscars.  Eileen Brennan has a very memorable moment in this film where she shoots one of those filled-with-disgust glares at Jacy (Shepherd). It’s one of those looks that only exists between one woman and another. Ms. Brennan (who passed away earlier this year) was Oscar nominated for her supporting role in Private Benjamin (1980).

last bog Equally fascinating are the stories of the creative forces behind the film.  Peter Bogdanovich (pictured left) was a film historian and film critic when he broke into Hollywood as a bit actor and filmmaker.  He later had some directorial success with such films as Paper Moon (1973) and Mask (1985), but he never again reached this level as a director (though very few do).  In fact, much of his career has been spent as a supporting actor (including a psychiatrist in “The Sopranos”).  Bogdanovich can be heard as the DJ on the radio during this film … a New Yorker giving his best impression of a Texan.  Married to his artistic collaborator and (later) producer Polly Platt while filming this movie, he soon began a very public affair with young Cybill Shepherd. They made quite the high profile couple for a short while.  You might remember the story of 1980 Playboy centerfold Dorothy Stratten, who was murdered by her ex-boyfriend Paul Snider, and was the subject of Bob Fosse’s film Star 80.  At the time of her death, Stratten was dating Bogdanovich.  A few years later, Bogdanovich married Dorothy’s younger sister Louise.  Even in Hollywood, this was greeted with raised eyebrows.  Bogdanovich worshipped the films of Truffaut, Ford and his friend Orson Welles … the influence of each is visible in The Last Picture Show. Unfortunately, Bogdanovich was never able to re-capture the magic of this 1971 gem.  Some blame his divorce from Polly Platt, while last mcmothers claim it was writer Larry McMurtry’s input that helped make the film something special. In addition to this novel and screenplay, McMurtry (pictured left) is also known for his Pulitzer Prize winning novel “Lonesome Dove” (later an award winning TV mini-series),  his novel “Terms of Endearment” (adapted into an Oscar winning movie), and his screenplay for Oscar winning Brokeback Mountain.  Despite all the success, it’s The Last Picture Show that hits closest to home … it’s a semi-autobiographical rendering of his life in Archer City, Texas (renamed Anarene in the film).  Even today, McMurtry is a book seller and frequent resident in Archer City.  In 2011, he married the widow of author Ken Kesey (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”).  Lastly, cinematographer Robert Surtees captured the desolate landscape of Anarene through his horizontal pans of a landscape that never seems to change.  Mr. Surtees was a 16 time Oscar nominee for such films as Oklahoma!, The Graduate, A Star is Born and one of his three wins came for the classic Ben-Hur.  His son Bruce followed in his shoes and was Oscar nominated for his work on Lenny (1975)

last tim cloris There are a few other things I like to point out in regards to the film.  The high school teacher reciting Keats’ “Truth and Beauty” to a class who couldn’t care less is John Hillerman (a native Texan), who went on to stardom in “Magnum P.I.” in the 1980’s.  Randy Quaid received an Oscar nomination just two years later for his work in the great The Last Detail. Of course, he later went on to star as Cousin Eddie in the ‘Vacation’ movies. Clu Gulager plays town lothario Abilene. He is the son of vaudeville star John Gulager, who worked with George M Cohan. Clu has had a long career in TV and movies and even appeared in last year’s Piranha 3DD … at age 84!  The music in the film corresponds closely to the story and much of it is the work of the great Hank Williams, Sr. Check out the two versions of “Cold, Cold Heart” as they are performed by both Williams and Tony Bennett.  Now THAT’s how you use music in a flm!  Cybill Shepherd became a star thanks to her work here, then in Taxi Driver, and in the hit TV show “Moonlighting” (with Bruce Willis), her own show “Cybill”, and the Showtime series “The L Word”.  She continues her work in both TV and movies.  As previously mentioned, she began a very public affair with director Peter Bogdanovich while filming this movie. What many don’t know is that she was actually seeing Elvis Presley at the time, and chose Bogdanovich over the King of Rock and Roll.

In 1990, director Bogdanovich revisited Anarene and caught up with the characters 30 years later in the sequel Texasville.  While it’s based on Larry McMurtry’s novel of the same name, Mr. McMurtry was not involved in the production and Bogdanovich wrote the screenplay himself.  Many of the original cast reprised their roles, but the film was not well received either critically or at the box office.   On the bright side, The Last Picture Show was selected to become part of The National Film Registry in 1998.  Maybe the film deserved a happy ending after all.

**NOTE: I have elected not to post the original movie trailer as it is my opinion that if you have not seen the movie, it’s best to view it with fresh eyes … in other words, the trailer shows too much of a few critical scenes.