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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10,000 SAINTS (2015)

August 13, 2015

10,000 Saints Greetings again from the darkness. Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n Roll – not just a bumper sticker, but also frequent and fun movie topics. Throw in 1980’s New York City, some excruciatingly dysfunctional parenting, and the coming-of-age struggles of three youngsters, and you have the latest from co-writers and co-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (the real life couple behind American Splendor, 2003).

Based on the novel from Eleanor Henderson, it’s a nostalgic trip with little of the positive connotations usually associated with that term. The surprisingly deep cast features Ethan Hawke and Julianne Nicholson (August: Osage County, 2013) as parents to son Jude played by Asa Butterfield (Hugo, 2011). Emily Mortimer plays Hawke’s new girlfriend and mother to Eliza played by Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit, 2010). Avan Jogia plays Jude’s best friend Teddy, and Emile Hirsch is Teddy’s big brother Johnny. It’s an unusually high number of flawed characters who come together in a story that features some familiar coming-of-age moments, yet still manages to keep our interest.

The story centers on Jude as he comes to terms with finding out he’s adopted, works to overcome his less than stellar parents, and spends an inordinate amount of time finding new ways to experiment with drugs. One night changes everything as it leads to a tragic end for one character and pregnancy for Eliza. Ms. Steinfeld is extraordinary as Eliza and really makes an impressive step from child actress to young adult. Julianne Nicholson is also a standout, and Ethan Hawke provides some offbeat comic relief.

So many elements of 1980’s New York are included, and no effort is made to add any touches of glamour. The Tompkins Square park riots also play a role, if only briefly as the key characters realize life is just not so simple … a consistent theme for both kids and parents. The fragility of life is always an interesting topic, and the filmmakers bring this to light through some characters that we feel like we know – and wish we could help.

watch the trailer:

 


LONE SURVIVOR (2014)

January 21, 2014

lone survivor Greetings again from the darkness. This is one of those times where, in order to analyze a movie, one must separate from the emotion of the subject matter. In the traditional sense, this is not a great movie. However, in terms of practicality, the true story and characters and their actions, leave us emotionally exhausted and questioning whether any war actually makes sense. The other thing it does is bring to light just what impressive beings these brave soldiers really are.

The story is taken from the book (co-written by Patrick Robinson) and real experience of Marcus Luttrell. A Texan and member of Navy SEAL Team 10, Luttrell was one of four chosen for the June 2005 Operation Red Wings … the capture or kill of al Qaeda bad guy Ahmad Shahd. Dropped into the Afghanistan Hindu Kush mountains, the mission goes horribly wrong once the group is stumbled upon by goat herders. The Rules of Engagement provide guidance that is supported by CNN concerns … and the decision is made to release them and call off the mission.

To say all hell breaks loose after that is simply an understatement. The four SEALs face insurmountable odds that end according to the spoiler title. If you have seen Blackhawk Down or the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan, then you have some idea of what to expect on screen as these elite soldiers fight for their lives and their country. The intensity and visceral violence is impossible to describe here. The bullets rip flesh and bone, while desperate re-grouping efforts lead to horrendous tumbles down rocky cliffs.

The movie begins with a glimpse at SEAL training, followed by a few minutes of base life … the competitiveness, the bonding, the breeding of fighting machines. Director Peter Berg does allow for a peek at humanity and personality, but the Band of Brothers culture is unmistakable. When one of them states “moderation is for cowards“, we never doubt for a second that this is part of their psyche.

The four Seals are played by Mark Wahlberg (Marcus Luttrell), Taylor Kitsch (Michael Murphy), Emile Hirsch (Danny Dietz), and Ben Foster (Matt “Axe” Axelson). While they are all believable, this is not an actor’s seminar. Neither is it a geopolitical editorial. Partisanship is non-existent here. Rather, we are reminded of the sacrifice that comes with war, and left to decide for ourselves if this approach is the best we can do … but never having any doubt that these are heroes and extraordinary men.

The real Marcus Luttrell makes an appearance in the movie … he is the SEAL that spills coffee and tells the rookie to clean it up. Finally, as director Berg was meeting with the families prior to filming, this quote came from Danny Dietz’s father after reading the obituary: “That’s who my son was. That’s how hard he fought. Make sure you get that right“.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you’re looking for a realistic glimpse at just how horrific war can be

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you’re looking for a political statement about whether US policy is right or wrong

watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yoLFk4JK_RM

 


KILLER JOE (2012)

August 5, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Every so often there’s a movie that just defies description and leaves me at a loss for analysis. Initially I thought maybe I could come up with a comparison, but that has proved futile. It also falls short (but does set the tone) to imagine if David Lynch, John Waters and the Coen Brothers collaborated on a film. And then it hit me that really the most likely legacy for this movie is as a midnight movie favorite. A cult film if you will. It has the twisted humor and borderline caricature characters and enough wild scenes and bizarre lines of dialogue, that I believe the midnight crowd will embrace it wholeheartedly.

 The first surprise is that it’s directed by 76 year old William Friedkin, who is best known for his 1970’s classics The Exorcist and The French Connection. He even throws in a bit of a chase scene here just to remind of us of his timeless scene from the latter. The story is from playwright Tracy Letts who won a Pulitzer for “August: Osage County” (a film version coming soon). Mr. Letts took the inspiration of the story from a real cop in Florida, moved the setting to Texas for obvious reasons and then filmed in Louisiana for economical ones.

 The next surprise is Matthew McConaughey, who has made a career of playing Him-bo’s in farcical rom-coms that seem only to exist so he can be filmed without a shirt. Here, he plays the titular Killer Joe Cooper as a fastidious, meticulous detective who runs a murder-for-hire “business on the side”. Killer Joe has a couple of rules and demands that the details be just right before he agrees to a job. But then he bends his rules when he meets Dottie (Juno Temple), the virginal sister of Chris (Emile Hirsch) and daughter of Ansel (Thomas Haden Church). She becomes the retainer when father and son can’t come up with actual money for the job.

The best way to describe these people, including and especially Ansel’s second wife Sharla (Gena Gershon), is they are the epitome of trailer-park hicks who are not merely dysfunctional as a family, but even moreso as human beings. They barely have money to get by in life, but it’s spent on beer, cigarettes, fast food and horse racing. When a small drug deal goes bad, Chris (the scheming son) comes up with the idea of killing his mother (Ansel’s ex) to collect the insurance money. A touch of Double Indemnity thrown down by the Beverly Hillbillies.

 So hustler son and simpleton dad hire Killer Joe for the job. Think of the plan from Blood Simple, and now imagine it’s carried out by the cast of Dumb and Dumber. Things go awry when Joe meets Dottie. It brings out a side of him hidden by his smooth vocal manners and starched black exterior. A side best compared to the sadistic nature of Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet.

No more details need be provided, just know that the story and the people are twisted and demented, and the violence and sexuality are the type that make a film tough to watch at times. That level of discomfort is assuaged by the laugh out loud moments offered by the dialogue, but merely leaves our brains desperately gasping for coherence.  Worth noting is the unique camera work is provided by veteran DP Caleb Deschanel (Zooey’s dad).

Clarence Carter’s “Strokin'” is fitting end punctuation for the film, and be warned that while I will never view canned pumpkin the same again, that pales in comparison to what Gena Gershon must now think of when someone offers her a piece of fried chicken.

watch the trailer:


SAVAGES (2012)

July 12, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. I guess this qualifies as director Oliver Stone returning to his dark side. Based on Don Winslow‘s novel, it certainly has the foundation to be a complex, down-and-dirty, twisted plot, double-crossing, love triangle, ultra-violent, drug-dealing smörgåsbord. And while it possesses all of those elements, it still manages to come across as some slick Michael Mann cable TV project.

The film begins with narration from O (Blake Lively) who tells us that just because she is telling us this story, doesn’t mean she is alive at the end. Huh?? She also tells us that she is love with two drug-dealing buddies. Yes, both of them. Chon (Taylor Kitsch, John Carter) is the ex-Seal and muscle in the business. Ben (Aaron Johnson, Kick-Ass) is the gifted botanist who turns the magic Afghan seeds into the most potent pot in southern California. Oh, and Ben is also the ultimate philanthropist drug dealer. He builds schools in third world countries and invests in clean energy. After what felt like an eternity, the narration finally ended and I could stop yelling “Shut up, O” at the screen.

One day the boys receive a video via email. It’s an invitation to a business meeting with the Mexican Baja Drug cartel. Suffice to say that the video contained no balloons or party animals. It was more of a visual warning about what happens if you choose not to do business with them. The cartel front men are played by Demian Bichir (fresh off A Better Life) and Benecio Del Toro (MIA since The Wolfman). The queen of the cartel is Elena, played by Salma Hayak. Throw in a corrupt DEA agent, playing both sides against each other, portrayed by John Travolta, and all the pieces are in place for real fireworks once O is kidnapped (it’s in the trailer).

The rest of the movie is pretty much the war you would expect with some poor negotiation skills, torture and back-stabbing tossed in for fun. Overacting is the word of the day, especially from Travolta, Ms. Hayak and Emile Hirsch (money man). Still not sure what to make of Ms. Lively (The Town). The camera certainly loves her but it’s too early to tell if she has staying power as an actress. The only character that is really fun to watch is Lado, played by Del Toro. He is truly a frightening guy who also happens to have a deceptive mind on how to take over from the weak.

The whole good versus evil story line really only works if one side is good and one side is evil. If the good side (Ben) is a drug-dealer in a love triangle with his best friend, it’s much more difficult to muster empathy. Otherwise, when the necessary hostage/money exchanges occur, we really aren’t invested in the characters … and the action takes center stage. That’s the sign of a forgettable movie with no real heart.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see beautiful people playing drug dealers OR you want to see Benecio Del Toro at his sleazy best

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting a gritty, down and dirty drug dealing drama with the political extremism we have come to expect from director Oliver Stone

watch the trailer: