Movie Review ~ Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A faded television actor and his stunt double strive to achieve fame and success in the film industry during the final years of Hollywood’s Golden Age in 1969 Los Angeles.

Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Kurt Russell, Al Pacino, Dakota Fanning, Luke Perry, Timothy Olyphant, Emile Hirsch, Damian Lewis, Lena Dunham, Mike Moh, Austin Butler, Margaret Qualley, Bruce Dern, Zoë Bell

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Rated: R

Running Length: 161 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Plenty of directors have shown an affinity for their medium throughout the course of their careers…you kind of have to when you’re in an industry that loves a good pat on the back almost as much as they love a great opening weekend.  I’m not sure if I know of a filmmaker, however, that truly loves movies as much as Quentin Tarantino does.  Though the writer/director is notorious for his outspoken ways and has come under fire recently when some questionable actions on the set of the Kill Bill movies resurfaced, he’s never shied away from wearing his movie nerdishness loud and proud.  A fanboy for movies that range from popular classic to underground cult, Tarantino has an eclectic taste which has helped him to cull numerous reference points for his films throughout the years.

So it’s fitting that he’s finally gotten around to making a film about Hollywood, creating a story about a waning star and his stunt double crossing paths with faces both factual and fictional. Far from being an expose on the dark side of the Hollywood lifestyle, Tarantino is more interested in recreating the feel of living in this mecca that lured so many dreamers and, more specifically, how one man comes to terms with his fading career.   As with many Tarantino films, the object from the first frame is total immersion in the time and place and though it has recognizable actors from 2019 you could easily believe it was made 50 years ago.  You’ve likely heard it also has something to do with Charles Manson, Sharon Tate, and the infamous tragedy that occurred on August 8, 1969 but…more on that later.

Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio, back onscreen after a four-year absence and reteaming with his Django Unchained director) is a former star of a mildly popular western television show looking for his next project.  Unable to rest on the laurels of his previous role much longer, he seeks the advice of a blunt talent agent (Al Pacino, Stand-Up Guys, nicely dialing down his tired Pacino-y mannerisms) who urges him to consider leaving Hollywood to star in a series of spaghetti westerns filming in Italy.  The majority of the film tracks Rick over the next two days as he prepares to film a guest spot on a television series while mulling this new international opportunity.

At the same time, Rick’s stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt, World War Z) acts as chauffeur, handyman, gopher, and overall sidekick to the man he takes onscreen falls for.  Earning a bad reputation in the industry for a mystery surrounding his wife, Cliff can’t get much work outside of his employ with Rick so he sticks around hoping his boss will land another role that will call for his talents.  The two men have a clear kinship that extends beyond any lines of stardom and there’s an unspoken respect and loyalty flowing both ways, which is established so well Tarantino doesn’t need to fill in any gaps for the audience into how the two were paired in the first place.

What Tarantino does do, though, is take numerous opportunities to cut away to previous jobs Rick and Cliff worked on with varying degrees of success.  It’s fun to see DiCaprio loosen up dancing and singing (terribly) on Hullaballoo and an extended sequence where Cliff has it out with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on the set of The Green Hornet has absolutely no bearing on the rest of the movie but is quite entertaining on its own merits.  Where it gets tricky is when Tarantino indulges himself too much, taking us on long drives through Los Angeles (we get it, it’s a bigger town than we think) and burns valuable time with clips from Rick Dalton’s previous appearances.  Still, those drives through Los Angeles give production designer Barbara Ling (The Lucky One) an excuse to recreate some fantastic locales in exquisite detail.  All theaters would need to do is pump in some smog and you are right there in the heart of L.A.

The first hour of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood ambles nicely into interesting territory as we get our bearings (courtesy, again, of those long car rides) but it’s Cliff’s chance meeting of a hippie waif (Margaret Qualley, Novitiate) and offering her a ride home when the movie starts to get intriguing.  When they arrive at Spahn Ranch in Chatsworth, CA and Cliff meets the girl’s “family” his alarm bells go off and the hairs on the back of your neck will start to stand up.  Tarantino makes this not just the turning point of the movie but it’s centerpiece as well, as Cliff slowly realizes things aren’t what they appear to be and the property, which he is familiar with from his career with Rick, wouldn’t just be turned over to these creepy hippies.

Here’s where I have to give the slightest caveat of a spoiler alert coming up. While I won’t give any key plot details away I’ll need to make a few points known.  It’s not something you won’t already know.

Though many of us know about Charles Manson and his Manson Family, I was fuzzier on some of the finer details and didn’t realize until later when it was that Tarantino shifted into a slightly alternate timeline to the events as they originally occurred. The actual involvement of Manson and his followers in Tarantino’s movie is, honestly, minimal but it is a key piece of the overall story Tarantino has worked out regarding Rick and Cliff.

That means Manson victim Sharon Tate becomes a character in the film as well, showing up as Rick’s next door neighbor and giving Tarantino another real life individual with a timeline he may or may not feel the need to play around with. Though brought to life with vibrancy by a nearly silent Margot Robbie (Mary, Queen of Scots), Tate is a minor player that Tarantino prefers to keep at a distance when things take a dark turn.  Clearly, he only wants to remember Tate when she was young and beautiful, even going so far as to have Robbie going to see herself as Tate in a movie but watching the actual footage of Tate in the film.  For other celebrity sightings, keep your eyes open for appearances by Steve McQueen, Squeaky Fromme (Dakota Fanning, Effie Gray, in a chilling cameo), Mama Cass, and Connie Stevens.

It’s not spoiling anything to say the night of August 8, 1969 is the final destination of the movie.  The ending of the film is still a bit of a puzzlement to me and I think I’ll need to see it again to firm up my thoughts on how successful it is. I’d be interested in hearing what the families of the victims think about the way Tarantino handled the events of that night and if the choices he made moved any immovable dials in their heart.  Like most Tarantino films (and quite like 2015’s The Hateful Eight) the director pulls all the stops out for the final reel – audience members at my screening seemed to go along with it but my reaction was more muted.

The real story here are the performances of DiCaprio and Pitt, arguably two of the honest-to-goodness biggest stars Hollywood has right now.  Both have toplined countless films and brought them to box office glory but combining their talents was a real win for Tarantino and a boon for the film as a whole.  As with many of his performances, I found DiCaprio good to a point, but the actor always gets to a certain level where you clearly see the effort being made and then it falls apart for me.  A scene of Rick chastising himself after a lackluster performance in a scene goes on far too long and, because we’ve already seen Rick’s vulnerability, is redundant.  It’s a good thing DiCaprio has Pitt next to him for so much of the movie because this is Pitt’s most radiant time to shine.  Wearing the barely visible faded scars of a stuntman long in the business, Pitt’s best moments are when he’s not saying anything at all but just reacting to what’s happening around him.  It’s one of his all-time great roles and, coupled with the much anticipated Ad Astra, could mean 2019 winds up being a very good year for him.

At nearly three hours, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood could arguably be trimmed by a good twenty minutes, though I think it would be at the expense of some tone setting and establishment of characters.  No question, there’s a less laborious way to get through the movie but I didn’t find myself bored, easily making it through this one more than I have numerous films half its length.  It’s a must-see in theaters and try to catch it in 35MM should it be playing in that format nearest you.  Then go read up about the people and places you see and untangle the fact and fiction braid Tarantino has weaved.

Movie Review ~ Men in Black: International

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: The Men in Black have always protected the Earth from the scum of the universe. In this new adventure, they tackle their biggest threat to date: a mole in the Men in Black organization.

Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, Liam Neeson, Kumail Nanjiani, Rafe Spall, Emma Thompson, Rebecca Ferguson

Director: F. Gary Gray

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: There are some movies you can’t wait to review. Once they are over you run home to your computer or laptop and hit the keys.  If the movie is good, the copy practically writes itself because you’ve been thinking about the specific points to make and how you want to let your readers know this is a film to keep your eye out for.  For bad movies, it’s often easier to pull your thoughts together on what to say but harder to pen a review that’s more than just a tear down of the production.  Then there are movies like Men in Black: International which is so instantly forgettable I had to prioritize its review for fear I would forget the movie entirely.

Arriving seven years after Men in Black III seemingly wrapped up the big screen adventures of the special agents tasked with protecting Earth from alien threats, Men in Black: International was originally intended to be a crossover with the gang from 21 Jump Street.  When that plan failed to materialize, the film went ahead as its own entity, spun-off from the original trilogy and, though retaining a few characters/creatures, largely telling its own story.  The result is a tedious time-waster by even the most generous of summer standards, with no one stepping up to make the case this was a franchise that needed to be rebooted.

Ever since she was a child,  Molly (Tessa Thompson, Avengers: Endgame) has been trying to identify the secret government agency that visited her house as a child and used a neuralyzer on her parents, wiping their memory clean regarding an alien encounter but forgetting to clear her as well.  She knows she saw a small furry blue creature and, though everyone tells her she’s crazy in the years that follow, is intent on finding out where the agency is located and joining their ranks.  By lucky happenstance (this is a 105 minute movie, after all), Molly is in the right place at the right time and finds what she’s looking for, eventually convincing Agent O (Emma Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks) to take her on as a probationary agent.  The film races past any potential interest we have in how the agency trains its field agents, opting instead to just show Molly (now Agent M) suited up and ready to go, her boot camp days long behind her.

For her first mission, she’s dispatched to the London branch of the Men in Black, led by High T (Liam Neeson, The Grey) and her plucky curiosity gets her paired with Agent H (Chris Hemsworth, Vacation) on a routine protection detail that turns into a fight to save the Earth from an evil force known as The Hive.  To make matters worse, aside from a nosey co-worker (Rafe Spall, Prometheus) with a grudge against Agent H, there’s a mole in the London branch so H and M have to stay one step ahead of a traitor on the inside who is following their every move.  The set-up gives way to a plodding second act where the agents sorta make good on the “international” promise of the title but largely go up against CGI villans that are rarely menacing, let along convincingly real.

Though paired together well in Thor: Ragnarok, Hemsworth and Thompson have awkward onscreen chemistry that goes above and beyond the characters initial dislike/distrust of each other.  Hemsworth in particular looks like he’s coasting on fumes for much of the picture and all that positive support he built up in his Avengers run evaporates with his listless performance.  The usually interesting Tessa Thompson also strikes out too, but she’s mostly undone by a script that doesn’t provide any depth to her character.  It’s like she never existed prior to the opening of the film and while that makes for a great MIB agent, it makes for a fairly hollow character we’re supposedly going to be rooting for.  You get the feeling Emma Thompson and Neeson recognized how sloppy this whole thing was and slowly started to back away from the movie because they dissolve into the background whenever possible.  Normally I’m all for a Rebecca Ferguson (The Greatest Showman) appearance but her cameo as a zebra-wigged arms dealer that’s all arms is absolutely the time those with small bladders can get up and go to the bathroom.

Director F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton) along with Iron Man screenwriters Matt Holloway and Art Marcum either never saw the original Men in Black films or did and just didn’t care about maintaining the quirky charm of the preceding films.  Especially in the debut film, there was a B-movie feel to the proceedings that helped make it’s shlockier alien creature elements a little easier to swallow.  The new film is straight-forward filmmaking 101 with little creative pride taken in anything from action sequences to creature design to 11th hour plot twists.  They say some movies are taken for the paycheck and this is one where everyone must have needed a new pool in their backyard.

Movie Review ~ Sex Tape

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The Facts:

Synopsis: To spice up their marriage, a couple decides to make a sex tape. It seems like a great idea – until they discover that their most private video is no longer private.

Stars: Cameron Diaz, Jason Segel, Rob Corddry, Ellie Kemper, Rob Lowe 

Director: Jake Kasdan

Rated: R

Running Length: 94 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  I think most audiences would be forgiven if they heard the title of Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel’s new comedy and write it off as another inane foul-mouthed raunch fest, the kind of flick both actors have been involved with in the past; she in There’s Something About Mary and The Sweetest Thing, he in Forgetting Sarah Marshall.  And, to some extent, they wouldn’t be wrong to assume that.  Sex Tape IS an inane foul-mouthed raunch fest but it’s also surprisingly sprightly, moving fast through 94 minutes that showcase the best, um, assets of its leads.

Not wasting any time, Sex Tape opens on mommy blogger Diaz (going for another hit in 2014 after April’s The Other Woman) fondly recalling her early years meeting, sleeping with, and marrying her college boyfriend (Segel, The Five-Year Engagement).  These early scenes are heavy on the sexcapades as Diaz and Segel (looking like plastic automatons after being digitally smoothed out to look decades younger/thinner) try out every position in the book as they discover each other and fall in love.

Surprise surprise, like the similar in style (but totally wretched) This is 40 the movie lets us know that getting older ain’t that fun, kids put a cramp in romance, and sex becomes something you schedule between PTA meetings and soccer practice.  What sets Sex Tape apart from Judd Apatow’s lame-o exploration of a mid-life relationship crisis is that the central couple decides to do something about it rather than complain to their friends how unhappy they are.

One night after a few drinks and a failed attempt at a roller-skating role-playing fantasy (showcasing that Diaz doesn’t need any digital help in the body-ody-ody department) they decide to film themselves going through every position in The Joy of Sex.  The next morning they’re hung-over and ready to get back to their kids and careers, largely forgetting their naughty filmmaking session.  Through some questionable and quickly explained away tech developments, their iPad filmed home movie gets sent to all the linked iPads in their network (Segel’s character likes to give away iPads as gifts…must be nice to be so cash solvent and Apple sponsored).  When a mysterious text reveals the gaffe, Segel and Diaz set out find the texter and to recover all the gifted iPads which houses their taped tryst just a click away.

I’m not sure a full 90 minutes was needed to tell this tale and obviously the filmmakers didn’t either because so much extra material is loaded in to pad the proceedings that the movie quickly loses its way once Diaz and Segel embark on their reconnaissance mission.  Along the way they pick up their best friends (the annoying duo of Rob Corddry, Warm Bodies & Ellie Kemper, 21 Jump Street), stop by for a lengthy con to get an iPad back from Diaz’s potential boss (a dreadfully miscast Rob Lowe, way too in on the joke), and break into the headquarters of an adult site with an owner brought to cameo-ed life by a one-time A-lister.

The entire film feels like it was made in someone’s backyard with many shots taking place in front of a green screen or standard set piece lifted from the Desperate Housewives backlot.  There’s also a fair amount of very long scenes for a comedy, I counted at least three scenes where the camera just cuts between Segel and Diaz bickering for minutes on end.  Even though the film mostly breezes by, these are the scenes you’ll be checking your watches in and wondering why director Jake Kasdan didn’t do something more creative.

What saves the film are Diaz and Segel’s willingness to play along with it all.  Both actors aren’t afraid to bare some skin and poke fun at themselves and what’s more, I actually believed they were this couple with these children living this life.  The sophomoric material is beneath everyone involved but it’s the commitment to it that makes the performances work so well.  I’m not sure which of the endings I liked the best (the film climaxes several times) but it ends on a pleasing note of sweetness that’s fairly rare for this genre of lewd comedies.

I’ve seen much worse comedies this year (Blended, A Million Ways to Die in the West, and the Typhoid Mary of summer, Tammy) and don’t have a problem suggesting Sex Tape for a matinee viewing based on performances that rise above the material.

Movie Review ~ Total Recall (2012)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A factory worker, Douglas Quaid, begins to suspect that he is a spy after visiting Rekall – a company that provides its clients with implanted fake memories of a life they would like to have led – goes wrong and he finds himself on the run.

Stars: Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Biel, Bokeem Woodbine, Bryan Cranston

Director: Len Wiseman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 118 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  There are some movies that need to be remade.  Maybe something went awry the first time a film was produced that caused it to fail or not hit the right chord.  Maybe it was the casting…the perfect star wasn’t born yet.  Maybe the technology wasn’t available to put a shine on a film that needed buffing.  Countless reasons exist to look back into film history and take another stab at a mediocre film.  Trouble is, Hollywood isn’t that creative so instead they are looking at what was popular ten or twenty years ago and putting these films through the remake wringer.  It’s a cannibalistic industry and its appetite is growing.

Sometimes the effect is acceptable.  I found 2011’s update of Footloose to be a great example of how to please the audiences of now while not upsetting fans of the original.  With clever nods to the 80’s film that inspired it, the movie landed quite well and stood on its own two feet.  Last summer a 3D remake of Fright Night was released and it too felt right to me because it used the original more as inspiration than doing a scene-for-scene remake.  It was funny, scary, and served its purpose without causing too much of a stir. 

The star of that remake, Farrell, is back in another summer remake but this time with less than stellar results.  I consider 1990’s Total Recall to be a sci-fi classic that was a high point for star Arnold Schwarzenegger and director Paul Verhoeven.  With its strong production design, thrilling score, extreme action, and pulsing pace the 90’s Recall was a huge box office hit and is still highly regarded today.

It’s a puzzlement, then, that Sony Pictures felt the need to release a so-so remake that is not superior in any way to the original.  I’m not exaggerating when I say that absolutely nothing in 2012’s Recall will make you forget the vision that Schwarzenegger/ Verhoeven gave us – so it’s impossible to really enjoy the film.  It’s not a bad film, per se, but it’s overall so unnecessary that you’ll probably find yourself wondering why you just didn’t stay home and pop in your old DVD copy of it instead.

Here’s a film where a lot of effort yields sparse results.  The film is big and bombastic with nice special effects and some sincere performances…but at the end of the day it doesn’t add up to a movie with lasting value.  There are a few tips ‘o the hat to the original (the three-boobed lady being the most memorable) but it does feel like screenwriters Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback purposely went against the grain to be different.  Messing with something that already worked ultimately doesn’t do anyone any favors.

Looking objectively, Farrell makes for a good leading man of the future that is put into danger when his erased memories are triggered during a journey to Total Rekall.  Total Rekall promises to give you “the memory of a lifetime” but this memory can’t be similar to any memories that currently exist in your brain.  Trouble is, because Farrell’s memory has been erased he doesn’t remember he used to be a spy which causes trouble when the procedure is begun.  Once he starts to remember, all hell breaks loose and he’s hunted down by various synthetic robots, corrupt police, and one very volatile operative (Beckinsale) with secrets of her own.

Giving credit where it’s due, there is more detail about the procedures and effects of Total Rekall in this film but trying to make sense of it all may throw you for a loop.  The beauty of the original was that you were never quite sure what was reality and what was “Rekall” but here you always know which world you’re operating in. 

Maybe it’s because the film does follow the same trajectory as the first that this viewer always knew what was coming next.  Surprise revelations and scenarios are anticipated rather than revealed so nothing came as a surprise.  Perhaps someone not familiar with the Verhoeven film would get more out of the movie but as it stands, I kept checking off various events as we neared the end.

I’m not familiar with the Phillip K. Dick source material this was based on so I’m not sure if this one is more true to the original plot but even so there seems to be a pretty thin objective for the main villain (Cranston in yet another bad wig and overzealous performance.  After a dismal turn in Rock of Ages earlier this summer, Cranston probably should stick to winning awards for television shows) and in the end it doesn’t seem to really matter.  The story is more interested in Farrell and his daring escapes while being pursued.

The film really could have been called Colin Farrell Jumps Off Stuff because that would be a more accurate way to describe most of the action sequences.  Farrell never misses an opportunity to jump off a roof or through a window and nearly every scene is punctuated with a man who leaps from ramshackle buildings in a single bound.  In the Blade Runner inspired production design, that gives him a lot of buildings for jumping off points as he evades Beckinsale in her pursuit.

Beckinsale is married to director Wiseman (they also collaborated on the Underworld films) and her role has been beefed up probably so he could keep her on set longer.  She seems to be an amalgam of the Sharon Stone and Michael Ironside characters from the original and that plays well into Beckinsale’s butt-kicking persona and wicked streak.  She’s fun for most of the film until she becomes just part of a series of plot devices rather than an actual character. 

She comes off better than fish-faced Biel who does adequately until the final few minutes when her thin acting talent shines through.  Also, Biel and Beckinsale look pretty similar so it becomes confusing as to who we are following during chase sequences.  Overall, Biel seems to be a weak choice for this role and I would have preferred a less refined looking actress in the role.

As I mentioned before, the action sequences are not too bad with a few inventive sequences.  Alas, they don’t make up for everything that comes between them that feels warmed over with a been-there-done-that vibe.  I often found myself wondering why the film had to take the route it does to get to a ho-hum conclusion.  It’s not a high-stakes film, you never have any doubt who is going to make it and who won’t so you just munch on your popcorn and shift in your seat until the expected outcome arrives.

My advice is to take the 2012 Total Recall for what it is…a mediocre remake of a film that didn’t need to be remade in the first place.  It’s diverting enough to not make you pull your hair out but you may regret spending the money on movie that you already got your money’s worth out of 22 years ago.