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 Pit Bull 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:


AMERICAN PASTORAL (2016)

October 20, 2016

american-pastoral Greetings again from the darkness. Tackling one of the great American novels is a difficult challenge for even the most seasoned film directors … and a dubious undertaking (at best) for a first-timer. Philip Roth won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1997 novel “American Pastoral”, and there have been rumblings of a Hollywood production for more than a decade. It’s somewhat surprising that the screen version is directed by first time director Ewan McGregor … with the Scottish actor also taking on the lead role of local Jersey boy and sports hero Seymour “Swede” Levov.

The story examines the cracks behind the façade of a seemingly perfect family … the sports hero marrying the beauty queen. Of course, there is always more going on within a family than most care to admit (at least that was the case in the days prior to Facebook). There’s an early scene where Swede has introduced Dawn (Jennifer Connelly) to his father (Peter Riegert), and the philosophical and religious differences perfectly capture the changing times and mores from one generation to the next. Never has this been more true than the late 1960’s and early 1970’s … political and social upheaval were daily occurrences – and sometimes quite violent.

The first half of the movie is exceptionally well done and captures the essence of why the second half feels like a total decimation of everything Swede thought he had. He and Dawn’s daughter Merry is beautiful and feisty and stutters … something that only enhances the anger she expresses and anguish she causes for her parents. Her innocent questions as a young child evolve into radical political beliefs and affiliations as she grows up.

Merry (ironically named) is by far the most interesting character in the story, but with the focus on Swede, Dakota Fanning only has brief moments that are worthy of her talent, and Dawn has only a few emotional moments that allow Ms. Connelly to flash the acting depth she hasn’t shown in years. So much time and attention is devoted to Swede that the second half is a bit of a letdown and leaves too many details and questions unanswered.

John Romano’s (The Lincoln Lawyer) adaptation of the American classic took a different direction than we might have preferred, but it’s a thankless job since so many have considered this as unfilmable. McGregor shows a good eye as a director, though it’s obvious this material needed a more experienced filmmaker at the helm. The great Alexandre Desplat provides a classy score … the piano pieces are especially well suited. Supporting work is solid from David Strathairn as narrator Nathan Zuckerman, Rupert Evans as Swede’s brother, Molly Parker as Merry’s therapist, Uzo Aduba as Swede’s employee, and Valorie Curry as a misguided revolutionary. It’s a reminder that family dynamics may be the most complex organism, and when blended with the volatile times of the Vietnam War, a generational gap should be expected … even if it’s difficult and emotional to accept.

watch the trailer:

 

 

 


THE RUNAWAYS (2010)

March 20, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Getting dragged back to the mid-70’s can be quite fun, especially when the topic is rock ‘n roll. Based on lead singer Cherie Currie’s autobiography, this film provides an overview of the formation, sudden fame, and equally sudden dismantling of the first all-girl’s rock band, The Runaways.

Joan Jett was the heart of the band, but it took oddball music producer Kim Fowley to put the band together and get the recording deal. Fowley may be the most interesting character in this story. Here he is played with force by the very talented Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road).

Instead, the story focuses on Cherie Currie and Joan Jett, mostly Currie, since it is her book! Dakota Fanning plays Cherie Currie as a confused 15 year old with a messed up family life. The family includes a mom, played by Tatum O’Neal, who announces she is getting married and moving to Indonesia. Currie’s dad is a very sick alcoholic, so she is an easy recruit for Fowley and Jett. Jett is played balls-out by Kristen Stewart. Yes, Kristen Stewart from Twilight. Here she shows much more of the talent we saw prior to the Twilight series. She captures the fire and spirit of Joan Jett and leaves little doubt she will pursue her dreams despite all obstacles.  For a touch of trivia, note that Cherie’s sister Marie is played by Riley Keough … granddaughter of Elvis Presley.  It’s her big screen debut.

Overall, the script comes up short and provides us little more than headlines and a quick glimpse. Would have expected much more on talented guitarist Lita Ford, who continues to work today. For a quick intro to the story of The Runaways, this one is fine. Just don’t expect much depth.