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:


SORRY TO BOTHER YOU (2018)

July 12, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. All movie watchers know that the first rule of Fight Club is ‘Don’t talk about Fight Club’. And now we know that the first rule of Telemarketing is STTS: Stick to the script. The similarities between the two movies may be few, but hip-hop artist (The Coup) turned first time filmmaker Boots Riley comes out swinging in this offbeat, quite clever satire on race, corporate culture, economic factions, social division, and politics. It makes for a nice companion piece to last year’s critical darling, GET OUT.

LaKeith Stanfield (GET OUT, SHORT TERM 12) stars as Cassius “Cash” Green, a low key good dude living with his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) in his uncle’s (Terry Crews) garage. Four months behind on rent, Cash wants to do something important with his life, he just doesn’t know how … and his current financial circumstances aren’t helping. You may call him a dreamer, but he’s not the only one (a Lennon reference seems fitting for this film).

Cash’s best buddy Salvador (Jermaine Fowler) gets him an interview at a dingy basement telemarketing firm – an interview that clues us in on the type of humor we are in for. Thanks to advice from one of the veteran telemarketers (Danny Glover), Cash utilizes his “white voice” and immediately has remarkable success … and we get some pretty funny sales call visuals to correspond to the obvious capitalism statement.

Ultimately his sales success gets him promoted to the “power caller” level and his own mentor, accessible only through the gold elevator. This leads to conflict with his friends, his girlfriend and his own moral standards. See, the basement dwellers are being led by Squeeze (Steven Yeun) in an effort to unionize for a living wage and tolerable work environment. As Cash continues to pursue … well, uh … cash … his friends carry out their form of civil disobedience. This leads to police brutality, examples of corporate greed, and the downside to individual ambition.

Armie Hammer plays Steve Lift, the egomaniacal corporate d-bag who takes Cash under his wing – for the purpose of making more money. The sales pitch turns to “Worry Free”, a lifestyle being marketed through brain-washing advertisements for guaranteed food and shelter. One need only commit to a lifetime of corporate servitude. If that sounds like slavery, well, that’s the point Riley is making. It’s not so far off from the life many of us lead today, but of course this is presented in satirical fashion, so we are manipulated into laughing at ourselves and our society. There is even a popular reality TV show titled “I Got the S**T Kicked Out of Me”, and folks can’t get enough!

The story kind of flies off the rails in the second half with some wacko-science fiction genetic engineering. The equisapiens have to be seen, as no written description will do. Even this segment has purpose. It speaks to how individuals and corporations can seize power and head in a questionable direction – all in the name of progress, efficiency and stock price.

Stanfield excels in one of his first lead roles, and Ms. Thompson is her usual shining star. Kate Berlant (as the humorously named Diana DeBauchery) has a couple of excellent scenes, and David Cross and Patton Oswalt are terrific as the (extremely) white voices of Cash and Mr. _________ (played by Omari Hardwick).

Filmmaker Riley offers up not a call to arms, but rather a call to wake up! Many of the decisions here mirror real life. Personal success can cost us friends, and political and professional choices may challenge our inherent morals (here, bordering on Faustian). The film is both provocative and funny, though a bit messy at times. You’ll laugh while you think, or laugh after you think, or think after you laugh … somehow you’ll do both. OFFICE SPACE and Terry Gilliam’s BRAZIL may be the closest comparisons; just be cautious if Boots Riley ever invites you to join in some horse play.

watch the trailer: