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:


THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015)

December 27, 2015

hateful 8 Greetings again from the darkness. If one is to believe Quentin Tarantino, the leaked script scandal nearly turned this into a novel, rather than what it clearly needed to be … a Quentin Tarantino movie (his 8th).  It could even be considered a companion piece to Django Unchained (though this takes place in snowy Wyoming, as opposed to the balmy Deep South). It’s set soon after the Civil War and there still exists a palpable uneasiness between Confederate and Union types, creating a constantly teetering milieu between violence and progress.

Tarantino’s obsession with classic film led him to utilize the same Ultra Panavision 70 lenses used for Ben-Hur (1959), which required the retrofitting of 50 theaters across the country for the “road show”. This presentation includes an opening musical Overture, a midpoint Intermission, approximately 6 minutes of footage that highlight this rarely used format … stunning snow-filled vistas and wide shots of the frontier, and zero previews for upcoming releases.  When the film opens nationwide, the digital version will be straight-forward (though still nearly 3 hours in run time). The “road show” features are bonuses for us film geeks, and will have no impact on whether one enjoys the film or not.

Rather than follow in John Ford’s majestic Western footsteps, QT has the vast majority of the story take place within a one-room set called Minnie’s Haberdashery. Thanks to a record blizzard, the general store/saloon turns into a human snake pit filled with nefarious types who are quick with a quip and a trigger. The diabolical assemblage is made up of John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell, featuring world class whiskers), a bounty hunter who is handcuffed to his latest prize Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh); another bounty hunter (Union) Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L Jackson); British fancy boy Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth) who says he’s the hangman for Red Rock; the self-professed new Sheriff of Red Rock Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins); General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), a former Confederate officer; quiet cowpoke Joe Gage (Michael Madsen); and Senor Bob (Demian Bichir), whom Minnie left tending the store in her absence.

Now as you might expect, some of the above descriptions may be true, while others could be considered “conveniences”. What you also might expect is a steady rain of Tarantino dialogue delivered by the perfectly chosen cast. Each of these players grasps the cadence required to make this work … they have the rhythm of a stage play – a new direction that Tarantino has hinted at. And have no fear, over-the-top violence fills the second half of the story as the confined space and contradictory missions begin to clash.

No more need be said about the characters or the story. Russell, Jackson, Goggins and Ms. Leigh are especially effective at enlivening their scenes, and they are joined by supporting actors such as Dave Parks (son of the great Michael Parks), Gene Jones (who didn’t wish to call the coin flip in No Country for Old Men), Dana Gourrier (as Minnie), QT favorite Zoe Bell (as Six-horse Judy), and even Channing Tatum.

Legendary composer Ennio Morricone delivers his first western score in about 40 years, which is important since he’s the man behind the iconic music of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. On the topic of music, Morricone’s score is complimented by only a smattering of other songs (including a Roy Orbison gem and a solo from Jennifer Jason Leigh), which is unusual in the Tarantino canon. Three-time Oscar winner Robert Richardson re-teams with Tarantino and seems to have a blast with the challenges presented by the one-room set … he plays with focus and depth to create some fantastic shots. It should also be noted that the Sound is spectacular – everything from gunshots, to swirling wind, to boots and spurs, to galloping stage coach horses, and even the pouring out of coffee.

All of the above results in a stunning movie experience with the anticipated QT humor, violence, and anti-racism sentiment (though the N-word usage is once again tough to take) … yet somehow the final product doesn’t equal the individual moments of genius. It comes across as a blend of Agatha Christie, (Tarantino’s own) Reservoir Dogs, and John Carpenter’s The Thing minus the cohesiveness required for a great movie. So enjoy the characters, the technical achievements, and the terrific dialogue, but know that it’s unlikely to be one of those that cause you to stop down while surfing cable channels in a couple years.

watch the trailer:

 


BONE TOMAHAWK (2015)

October 25, 2015

bone tamahawk Greetings again from the darkness. In an effort to be helpful to potential viewers, it’s customary to provide a synopsis that allows for a quick determination on whether this “type” of movie will hold appeal. The problem is that this debut from writer/director (and novelist) S. Craig Zahler can be encapsulated with a simple: four local men from a small, dusty old West town head out on a rescue mission to face a tribe of cannibal cave-dwellers. Unfortunately, that analysis doesn’t cover the originality and genre-twisting of this Western-Horror film featuring crisp and funny dialogue, plus some of the most extreme brutality ever witnessed on screen.

A very deep and talented cast milks the script for every possible chuckle, moan, shock of pain, and queasy squirm. Kurt Russell stars as Franklin Hunt, the sheriff of the ironically named town Bright Hope. Though a long-time fan of Mr. Russell, I’ve often been critical of his career-limiting role choices, and here he proves yet again that he has always been capable of taking on a challenging lead and delivering a nuanced performance. He is joined in the rescue posse by his “back-up deputy” Chicory (Richard Jenkins), the abducted woman’s injured husband Arthur (Patrick Wilson), and a nattily attired gunman (Matthew Fox).

The opening sequence featuring outlaws Purvis (David Arquette) and Buddy (horror vet Sid Haig doing his best Slim Pickins imitation) sets the stage for the brutal violence to come in the third act, as well as the film’s crackling dialogue that’s clearly influenced by The Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino, and Elmore Leonard. There are also brief but memorable supporting roles from Kathryn Morris (as the Sheriff’s wife), Michael Pare’ (as a self-centered stable owner), James Tolkan (as an uninspired piano player), and Fred Melamed (as the barkeeper). Lili Simmons (“Banshee”) has a key role as the abducted Samantha O’Dwyer.

An odd blending of John Ford’s The Searchers and Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes, a substantial portion of the (long) run-time is dedicated to the slow trail ride/walk of the four men as they track the “troglodyte” tribe in hopes of rescuing the captured folks. The focus on these four men: the duty-bound Sheriff, the overly loyal deputy, the emotionally-driven husband, and the vengeful gunslinger, is an old West character study dressed up with some fancy oration. In fact, the excessively-perfect English sits in stark contrast to the other-worldly tribal wailings of the cave-dwellers who seem to have no real language at all.

It’s an unusual film that defies a simple synopsis, and certainly won’t appeal to all movie goers. A viewer must enjoy the prolonged journey and the interaction between the distinctive personality types (Jenkins is a particular standout in a Walter Brennan-type role), and also have an affinity (or at least a constitution) for gruesome brutality. The film is only receiving a very limited theatrical release, but should find an audience via VOD.

watch the trailer:

 

 


FURIOUS 7 (2015)

April 5, 2015

 

furious 7 Greetings again from the darkness. “For Paul”. A touching tribute to the late Paul Walker provides an emotional end to the most high-octane (sorry about that) F&F episode yet … and the perfect victory lap (sorry again) for the franchise. Of course, we know that it won’t be the last, if for no other reason than easy box office money.

The franchise began in 2001, and the familiar faces are back: Vin Diesel as Dom, Paul Walker as Brian, Jordana Brewster as Brian’s wife Mia, Michelle Rodriguez as amnesiac Letty, Tyrese Gibson and Chris “Ludicrous” Bridges as comic relief Roman and Tej, respectively, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as Agent Hobbs. New to the scene are Djimon Honsou as a terrorist, Ronda Rousey and Tony Jaa as elite henchmen (henchpersons?), Nathalie Emmanuel as super-hacker Ramsey, and Kurt Russell as the shadowy government-type cutting shady deals for fuzzy reasons. The biggest add is of course, Jason Statham as Deckard Shaw, the Black Ops big brother to Owen Shaw (Luke Evans) – silenced villain from the previous film (in which Statham made a brief appearance foreshadowing this story line).

Achieving remarkable success for what started as a fun little street racing cult film, this series thrives on its familiar characters, simple plot lines, staggering lineup of dream cars, and ever-louder and larger stunts, fights and set pieces. One of the earliest scenes features a fight scene that would be the climax of most action movies: The Rock vs Jason Statham. Rather than end or solve anything, this fight merely serves as a set-up for one of the film’s punchlines – involving The Rock and a plaster arm cast (pay no attention to that leg cast). In the middle, we get a too brief clash between Michelle Rodriguez and Ronda Rousey, but the real finale is a rooftop battle between Vin Diesel and Jason Statham that has such an extended cut-away, we almost forget they are going at each other.

In between those colossal fights, we get Paul Walker sprinting up the side of a bus that is sliding off a cliff, a wicked and armed drone, car chases galore – including one with a stealth chopper, synchronized10,000 foot car drops from an airplane, and most impressively, car jumps between the Etihad Towers in Abu Dhabi. That last one is not just any car, but a stunning red Lykan Hypersport … one with little resale value after its final trip.

Michelle Rodriguez’ character is fighting her amnesia, Ludacris and Tyrese play off each other like Laurel and Hardy, while Dom does his best Yoda impression, and Statham comes off like a revenge-seeking
missile from a Terminator movie. Every character gets their fair share of posing, preening, strutting and smirking. It would be an insult to call this over-the-top because that would imply we have previously seen
the top. This is high-speed, high-altitude mayhem that plays directly to a large fan base.

Personally, I’m not a devout F&F follower, and have seen only the first entry prior to this latest. My attendance for Furious 7 was driven (get it?) by my interest in seeing the tribute to Walker, and my personal code of seeing every Kurt Russell movie (don’t ask). However, I do understand the mass appeal, and I believe the followers will appreciate the approach of director James Wan (Saw, The Conjuring), who replaces 3 time series director Justin Lin.

watch the trailer:

 


THE BATTERED BASTARDS OF BASEBALL (2014, doc)

July 28, 2014

battered Greetings again from the darkness. What an excellent documentary on yet another in the seemingly endless string of baseball stories that are both fascinating and true. Don’t make the error of assuming one must be a baseball fan to enjoy this … it works just as well as a story of the little guy sticking it to the man (the man in this case is the court-protected giant known as Professional Baseball).

An original production of Netflix, it’s directed by Chapman and Maclain Way, brothers and grandsons of Bing Russell. You may or may not be familiar with Bing. He is the father of actor Kurt Russell, a well known character actor (a recurring role as Deputy Clem in “Bonanza“), and the driving force behind the Portland Mavericks. The Mavericks were an Independent Professional Baseball team from 1973 to 1977, and this is their story.

As a kid, Bing hung around St Petersberg, where the New York Yankees held spring training. He ended up friends with Lefty Gomez, and hung around many Yankee greats. Bing had a true passion for baseball. He loved the game, the players, and the way of life. He even used to test young Kurt on the intricacies of the game, and later created some very in-depth teaching videos.

Bing’s real impact on the great game came from his stint as creative force and owner of the Mavericks. The film does a terrific job with interviews, archival footage and other recollections of Bing and the rag-tag group of players that disrupted the industry that does not like to be messed with.

Not only was the team successful on the field, but they also set attendance records and inspired true fan loyalty. They were the last independent league allowed to play in the minor leagues, and their legacy continued even after the team was shut down: two of the pitchers invented Big League Chew, one pitcher was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, the team hired the first female GM in professional ball, and they even had a left-handed catcher. Their bat boy (Todd Field) went on to become an actor and Oscar nominated director and writer (In The Bedroom). “Ball Four” author Jim Bouton made his comeback with the Mavericks, which led to his making it back to the big leagues, and even Kurt Russell spent some time playing during the Mavericks’ first year.

It’s a shame this film didn’t make the festival rounds, as it would no doubt have been well received. I expect every baseball lover will get a kick out of this, and I certainly hope others give it chance. Bing Russell’s vision and passion are to be admired and respected, regardless of the industry. He was a “can do” guy who followed his bliss and made a difference.  The film is also a reminder that sports were once played for love of the game, rather than love of the dollar.

watch the trailer:

 


THE ART OF THE STEAL (2013)

March 16, 2014

art of the steal Greetings again from the darkness. Heist movies are a staple film genre that we can depend on to deliver plot twists, back-stabbing and misdirection. The best ones can make us chuckle along the way as we try to keep up, knowing full well we are a step behind.

The movie begins with a bit too much voice over from Kurt Russell’s character Crunch Calhoun. We learn that Crunch is a wheel man for a group of art thieves, and he was double-crossed by his brother Nicky (Matt Dillon). After serving his sentence in a Polish prison, Crunch becomes a stunt performer on motorcycles who makes a few extra bucks creating spectacular crashes for the spectators.

As you would expect, Crunch is soon enough drawn back into the world of stealing art … for the proverbial one last job. As the old gang assembles, it’s clear Crunch still doesn’t trust brother Nicky. But his need for money compels him to participate.  The rest of the gang consists of Kenny Welsh as Paddy, Chris Diamantopoulas as Guy, Katheryn Winnick (Crunch’s girlfriend), and Jay Baruchel as Frenchie (Crunch’s apprentice).

Writer/director Jonathan Sobol has solid instincts but would have definitely benefited from a script doctor, and more importantly, someone to stand up and rescue the mega-mismatch of Jason Jones (a bumbling Interpol Agent) and Terence Stamp (a parolee assisting with the investigation). Stamp is sadly underutilized here, though the film’s best scene has he and Russell facing off in an airport. Too bad the film couldn’t find a way to match these two up a couple more times.

The stylish direction would have been more effective if the stabs at snappy dialogue had been just a tad bit funnier and crisper. Baruchel helps with this some, and Russell still knows how to deliver a line, but this is not in the same class as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels or The Usual Suspects. Heck, it’s not even Ocean’s Eleven. Still, despite all the things it’s not … it does provide some decent entertainment during the winter doldrums of movie releases.

It also gets bonus points for a creative use of Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams”, and for having a Canadian filmmaker’s use of the line “Canada.  America-lite“.

**NOTE: I’ve long been a fan of Kurt Russell and have often written of my disappointment in his movie choices. He has the looks, charm, screen presence and talent to have been a much bigger star had he only chosen his roles more carefully.  I’m convinced losing the Bull Durham role to Kevin Costner soured him on acting to the point that he has since refused to take acting too seriously again.  Crunch does not make up for missing out on Crash.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy most any heist film and appreciate the old school greatness of Kurt Russell and Terence Stamp.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: your expectations are at the level of Guy Ritchie or The Usual Suspects.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UbqvELZ1-P8