Movie Review ~ Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

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The Facts
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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.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Autopsy of Jane Doe

The Facts:

Synopsis: A father and son, both coroners, are pulled into a complex mystery while attempting to identify the body of a young woman, who was apparently harboring dark secrets.

Stars: Brian Cox, Emile Hirsch, Ophelia Lovibond, Olwen Catherine Kelly, Michael McElhatton, Jane Perry

Director: André Øvredal

Rated: R

Running Length: 86 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Based on the recommendation of a trusted source, I fired up The Autopsy of Jane Doe a while back on a cold evening when I had the apartment to myself. I turned off all the lights and settled in to see if the good buzz from my friend was real. 86 minutes later the lights had been turned on (and stayed on for the better part of the night) and my nerves were downright rattled. A rare jewel in a sometimes-tarnished crown of low-budget horror films, The Autopsy of Jane Doe has some smarts behind it, not to mention a fair share of goosebump-inducing passages.

Proving once again why you should just close up shop when the day is done, a father-son set of coroners answer a late-night call from the police to start an autopsy of a young woman found buried in a neighboring town. Though she’s been hidden in the dirt for an indeterminate amount of time, her alabaster skin doesn’t show any decay nor is there any sign of immediate trauma. As the two men work into the night in their shadowy underground funeral home, they begin to believe not only that there’s spooky forces at play surrounding Jane Doe…but that the body might not be dead enough for burial just yet.

As the family members plunged into a frightful night of terror, Brian Cox (Pixels) and Emile Hirsch (Lone Survivor) play well off each other, mostly because they treat the material with the right amount of growing warines. The father is more trusting of history and science while the son is willing to suspend his disbelief and consider that what’s happening to this body can’t be explained away by documented medical cases. Writers Ian Goldberg and Richard Naing’s plot will keep you guessing and their script is aided by André Øvredal’s measured direction. Special mention must be made to the actress playing Jane Doe (Olwen Kelly) who has to do a helluva lot lying full naked on a cold metal slab.

The final 1/3 of the movie is loads of fun with many developments happening in quick succession. You’ll never get too far ahead of the characters, thereby enjoying each twist as it develops in front of you. There’s a fair amount of autopsy gore but the other violence is handled with just the right quantity of blood and guts. I hesitate to call the film classy because then we get into a different type of horror film that this one just doesn’t have any aspiration to be. It knows what it is and is highly effective in its mission to freak you out. Watch it alone if you must but try and rope a friend in to share the love.

Movie Review ~ Lone Survivor

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Marcus Luttrell and his team set out on a mission to capture or kill notorious Taliban leader Ahmad Shah, in late June 2005. Marcus and his team are left to fight for their lives in one of the most valiant efforts of modern warfare.

Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster, Ali Suliman, Alexander Ludwig, Eric Bana

Director: Peter Berg

Rated: R

Running Length: 121 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: “Holy moly.”  That’s what I found myself instinctively saying out loud several times during Lone Survivor, a taut war film that brings its audience along for a bone crunching journey along its razor’s edge of a true life tale.

I wasn’t sure what to make of Lone Survivor when early trailers were released.  I’ve grown wary of war films after years of similarly themed cinematic excursions both fictional and documentary-like that I just couldn’t fathom that this film, directed by Battleship helmer Peter Berg and starring Mark Wahlberg, would have anything new to bring to the battlefield.  Just goes to show that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover; or in this case judge a film by its marketing materials.

Berg opens the film with images from the limit-testing training that United States Navy SEALs undergo to take their place alongside the brave men and women serving our country.  It’s an eye-opening and pulse raising start, illustrating in no uncertain terms that only the best of the best make it through.  As the action transfers to a military base, we’re introduced to the members of the team of Operation Red Wings, tasked to track a high ranking dangerous Taliban leader.

Leading the team is Lieutenant Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch, John Carter, Savages), he’s joined by Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch, Killer Joe, The Darkest Hour), Matthew “Axe” Axelson (Ben Foster, Contraband), and Marcus Luttrell (Wahlberg, Ted, Pain & Gain) who wrote the book (along with Patrick Robinson) on which Berg adapted his screenplay from.  Comrades and brothers, this recon and surveillance team is a well oiled machine venturing into no man’s land with an important mission.

It’s not long before one wrong (but I suppose morally right) decision tosses the men into the path of mortal danger…leading to a middle section that puts the audience through a white knuckle gauntlet.  So many war films make the mistake of favoring jittery camera work to establish chaos but Berg and cinematographer Tobias Schliessler play against this and let their staging of these combat scenes tell the story instead.  There are several skillfully crafted heart pounding passages as the soldiers come face to face with their enemy and their own mortality.  Having already won a SAG Award for their work, special mention must be made again to the stunt performers on the film…with two sequences involving falling down the sheer edge of a mountain you’ll be wincing with each somersault/tumble.

Though the title gives the ending away, it doesn’t lessen the impact the film or its characters have on us.  Even when the film dips into standard stylized action fare in the last act there’s an underlying message of salvation to be had by everyone involved.  Berg has cast the film so well that he doesn’t need to coax committed performances out of anyone onscreen.  All four actors could have headlined the picture but Wahlberg again shows he’s light years away from his Funky Bunch days by turning in a layered rendering of Luttrell.

I expected the film to end with a dedication to the men who lost their lives but wasn’t prepared for how much of an emotional force it would have on me.  Berg and company have approached this material with the utmost respect for the bravery of those that put their lives on the line for their country and have delivered a superior war film that doesn’t glorify, grandstand, or proselytize…  It’s a better film that I ever would have thought it would/could be – and comes highly recommended.

The Silver Bullet ~ Lone Survivor

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Synopsis: Based on the failed June 28, 2005 mission “Operation Red Wings.” Four members of SEAL Team 10 were tasked with the mission to capture or kill notorious Taliban leader Ahmad Shahd.

Release Date:  January 10, 2014

Thoughts: Is it OK to say that I’m really over these war films that have anything to do with Afghanistan or the Taliban?  Even if Lone Survivor has an impressive cast and is adapted from a New York Times bestseller, I just don’t know if I can bring myself to sit through another shaky camera war themed movie where the audience already knows the ending but chomps away on their popcorn waiting for people to die.  I think there’s been such an impressive line-up of fiction and non-fiction films surrounding the war in the last decade that with every new addition one has to reevaluate how many times we want to bear witness t another tragic story.  That being said, I’ll choose to focus on the diverse array of committed actors that director Peter Berg has assembled.  Mark Wahlberg (Ted, Pain & Gain, Contraband), Eric Bana (Closed Circuit, Star Trek), Taylor Kitsch (Battleship, Savages, John Carter), Ben Foster, and Emilie Hirsch all bring something different to the table so I hold out hope that Berg uses the war setting as a canvas where the focus can ultimately be on the actors.

The Silver Bullet ~ Prince Avalanche

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Synopsis: Two highway road workers spend the summer of 1988 away from their city lives. The isolated landscape becomes a place of misadventure as the men find themselves at odds with each other and the women they left behind

Release Date:  August 9, 2013

Thoughts: Count me as ‘casually interested’ in this one.  A remake of an Icelandic film, this looks like a movie that’s been filtered through a Wes Anderson lens…nothing wrong with that but it just seems to have elements that we’ve seen before.  Director David Gordon Green is an interesting filmmaker – he started off with low budget indies that were critically well-received and then followed those up with Pineapple Express and (gulp) The Sitter.  Having interesting actors like Paul Rudd (Wanderlust, This is 40, Admission)and Emile Hirsch in the leads is a win…but this has the potential to go either way.