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.

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DONNYBROOK (2019)

February 21, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Is it a coincidence that I’m reviewing this moving on Charles Darwin’s birthday? “Survival of the fittest” could be the subtitle to writer-director Tim Sutton’s bleak film adapted from the novel by Frank Bill. The film would have us believe that, once born into poverty and a hopeless existence, the only daily decisions to be made are: Do I try to survive another day? Should I kill myself? Should I kill someone else?

Is that bleak enough for you? Sutton’s film provides glimpses of each of the three questions, but mostly it’s an expose’ on the violence that is generated from a community of poverty, addiction, abuse, and crime. It isn’t clear and doesn’t matter which of those things comes first … they all lead down the same path. Jamie Bell plays “Jarhead” Earl, a military veteran looking for an escape route for his young kids and his junkie wife (Dara Tiller). Having a knack for fighting, and an apparent ability to take a beating, Earl decides the only way out is by winning the $100,000 grand prize for the Donnybrook … a no-rules bareknuckle cage fight. Of course his only route to the entry fee is via armed robbery. Have I mentioned this is bleak?

Earl doesn’t talk much, but he tries to protect his wife from the local meth dealer, a brutal savage named Angus (Frank Grillo, THE GREY) who has an awkward partnership with his younger sister Delia (Margaret Qualley, NOTIVTIATE) as they make the rounds taking care of business. Angus is the type that resorts to violence in every situation, and we witness his lack of value on human life is just about every scene he is in. Delia is a bit more complicated, as she longs for a way out, and accepts even a momentary reprieve. To top it off, we have a Detective Whalen (James Badge Dale, “The Pacific”) who is “chasing” this brother-sister outlaw duo … well at least he chases them between drug and booze fueled sidetracks.

The story takes place in the rural Midwest with towns and people those on both coasts never give much thought. When Earl finally reaches the Donnybrook, we are treated to what appears to be a redneck Burning Man festival where the revelers only stop hooting and beer guzzling long enough to sing the National Anthem while the American flag waves. We are left not knowing if this is a commentary on poverty, male aggression, or the forgotten class. It has some tonal similarities to the excellent OUT OF THE FURNACE, but isn’t close to that level. None of filmmaker Sutton’s first 3 movies have found much of an audience outside of festivals, and it’s a safe bet this one won’t either.

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NOVITIATE (2017)

November 9, 2017

Greetings again from the darkness. As recognized at Sundance, this is a commendable debut feature film from writer/director Margaret Betts. It touches on subjects as thought-provoking as traditions in religion, faith, youthful romanticism, and most poignantly, first love. The film is at its best when focusing on the frustration, anger and confusion of both a helpless parent and the teenage girls so full of innocence as they try to come to grips with a decision their maturity level has them incapable of making.

Margaret Qualley (“The Leftovers”, and real life daughter of Andie MacDowell) stars as Cathleen, a 17 year old girl whose small town life included parents who divorced when she was younger. Her mother (an excellent Julianne Nicholson) is a foul-mouthed, chain-smoking agnostic who embraced the responsibility of raising Cathleen, even after the father stormed out of their lives. As they stand face-to-face and Cathleen announces she is going to become a nun and proclaims “I’m in love with God”, we all share the parent’s pain as a mother stares back incredulously, knowing full well a 17 year old is incapable of making such a decision on her own.

At the convent we meet Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo), a woman so devoted to the cause that she hasn’t stepped foot outside the fortress-like walls in 40 years. As she explains to the nuns-in-training that her voice is God’s voice, it brought back memories of Alec Baldwin’s surgeon character in MALICE (1998) stating in a perfunctory manner, “I am God.”

The story follows (at least) three stories: the Reverend Mother, Cathleen and the other nuns, and that of the powerless parent. The setting is the early 1960’s and an ordinance known as Vatican II has just been issued. It was designed to restructure the Catholic Church (for the first time in a century) and have it become more contemporary – allowing the nuns to better serve society. Unfortunately, many of the long-term nuns did not embrace the changes and it rocked their daily routines. Adding salt to their wounds was the fact that the changes were mandated from Rome with no input from the nuns – signaling the beginning of a still-present lack of power for women in the church. This is oh so evident in a scene with the Archbishop (Denis O’Hare) explaining to Reverend Mother how she missed the “subtext” in the suggestions.

Most of the film focuses on the group of girls who are shielded from the outside world and its temptations as they go through the rigorous training on the path to solidifying their love of God. What we see is that these girls are simply trying to figure out their own identities as the system works to drain human nature from their souls. The scenes of solitary prayer are powerful as they each wrangle with their beliefs, faith and true self. Typical teenage giddiness is on display as the girls wear their white dresses and veils on the day of vows. Their elation around the campfire is more creepy than comforting. Most painful of all are the “circle of faults” that Reverend Mother subjects the girls to. Morgan Saylor (“Homeland” daughter) plays one of the Sisters and has one of the most gut-wrenching scenes in the film. Most of us have never been through anything close to this and would label it cruel and manipulative.

Cathleen’s mother visits when allowed and dutifully shows up for all ceremonies. We can feel her pain as she strives to will some common sense into her daughter – never giving up hope. It’s crucial to note that Ms. Betts does not attempt to take down the church. Rather her story seeks to explore what inspires these young girls to make such a decision, and the emotional turmoil that goes into it. The film kicks off with a narrated “We were women in love”, and ends with a footnote explaining that 90,000 nuns left the convents after Vatican II. If you can connect with the hopeful girls, perhaps the film will have the intended emotional gut punch for which it strives. For the rest of us, we are left with no real explanation, nothing to uplift us, and the crushed spirit of a 40 year devoted nun. On the bright side, the arrival of an exciting, new filmmaker is always worthy of celebration … no need to comfort me.

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THE NICE GUYS (2016)

May 29, 2016

nice guys Greetings again from the darkness. Shane Black sold his first screenplay at a very early age which led him to become something of a phenom with the success of that film, Lethal Weapon (1987). Later, he disappeared from Hollywood for about 10 years before resurfacing in 2005 by directing his own terrific script with the immensely entertaining Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (my favorite movie of that year), and then hitting big-budget time with his script for Iron Man 3. This time, Mr. Black (directing and co-writing with Anthony Bagarozzi) returns to the detective-farcical-comedy-mystery-action genre and even adds an element of being a 1970’s period piece.

Black’s rapid-fire wise-cracks were perfect fits for Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr, and for this project he’s working with Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe … both fine actors, though neither known for their comedic work. What’s clear from the beginning of the film is that both Gosling and Crowe are fully committed to the material and their respective characters. Gosling plays a boozy Private Detective and single dad who just can’t quite get things right, while Crowe plays a hired-hand bruise type – think of his Bud White in L.A. Confidential (1997), only with an extra 50 pounds (or did he borrow Eddie Murphy’s Norbit fat suit?) and a lot of miles. These two damaged boys play off each other very well, and with Black’s dialogue and visual gags, the film provides a good number of laugh out loud moments … more silly than the sophomoric humor that’s so pervasive at multiplexes these days.

Of course for comedy to really click, there needs to be some type of story to follow. In the opening scene a young boy (Ty Simpkins) watches as a car slams through his house, culminating with a “model/actress” named Misty Mountains meeting a not-so-pleasant ending. We then learn that Gosling’s Holland has been hired to find Amelia (Margaret Qualley), who bears an uncanny resemblance to Ms. Mountains – with two significant exceptions. Simultaneously, Amelia has hired Crowe’s Jackson to convince Holland to stop searching for her. Soon enough, Holland and Jackson are working together on the “case” that mixes in the Auto industry (Big 3), Porn industry, Justice Department (government conspiracies), environmental protestors, Killer Bees, LA parties, LA smog, The Waltons (John Boy), The Rockford Files, Detroit, and Richard Nixon … all hot topics in this 1977 era.

As much as the story is needed, it really doesn’t much matter. This is a movie of moments … some of them featuring funny words, while others focus on pretty astute physical comedy. Gosling (and his stunt double) provides some pretty impressive gags as he is bounced and slammed around for most of the run time. The surprising heart of the film … and moral core … is Holland’s daughter Holly played by Angourie Rice. Despite the title, she is really the only “nice guy” in the whole film, and her good-hearted nature keeps us rooting for Gosling and Crowe, despite their flaws.

Other support work comes from Matt Bomer as a “John Boy” hit man, Keith David, Lois Smith, Yaya DaCosta (quick, name another Yaya), Beau Knapp (as the toothy Blueface), Jack Kilmer (Val’s son as a “projectionalist”), and Kim Basinger (re-teaming with her LA Confidential co-star, Crowe). Also playing a significant role are the mid-to-late 1970’s vehicles, the period music and houses and décor that puts us right in the moment, and the clothes and hairstyles that are sure to inspire a chuckle or two.

Fans of Lethal Weapon and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang will surely find plenty of laughter here … despite one of the worst trailers in recent memory and even if the film is lacking the one thing it advertises – nice guys.

watch the trailer: