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.

The Silver Bullet ~ Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Synopsis: A faded TV 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.

Release Date: July 26, 2019

Thoughts: To be honest, this first look at the 9th film from Quentin Tarantino is not what I expected.  Though this movie apparently has some connection to the infamous Manson murders that occurred a half century ago, you’d never know it by watching this teaser trailer which mostly focuses on A-listers Leonardo DiCaprio (The Great Gatsby) and Brad Pitt (World War Z) as a has-been star and his wise-cracking stunt double making one last go in La La Land.  You barely see Margot Robbie (I, Tonya) as Sharon Tate and the Manson family members pass by quickly if you aren’t paying attention.  What is there smacks of a lot of “acting” going on, especially from DiCaprio (yikes, that last shot!) and a little of that can go an awfully long way.  It’s clearly a teaser trailer for something more to come but usually Tarantino (The Hateful Eight, Django Unchained) offers up something a tad more enticing as an appetizer.  Still, from the looks of it he’s recreated 1969 California as only a truly fanatic film nerd could so I’m absolutely interested in the main course.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Thing (1982) {Trailer}

Synopsis: A twelve-man research team stationed in Antarctica finds an alien being that has fallen from the sky and has been buried for over 100,000 years.

Release Date: June 25th, 1982

Thoughts: It’s often nice not only to look back at classic films but also to check out their previews. Dig too far back (say to the ‘50s or ‘60s) and you’re likely to get the whole movie spoiled for you but there was a nice pocket of time in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s when the art of crafting a slick teaser was at its peak.  1979’s Alien will remain my all time favorite teaser but this one for 1982’s The Thing is high up on my list as well.  A remake of The Thing from Another World that was actually improved upon by director John Carpenter, the arctic-set The Thing was surprisingly released in early summer.  It’s holds up exceedingly well all these years later and is considered one of my old stand-bys if I want to pop in a scary sure-thing.  Along with its snazzy Drew Struzan poster (check out the Struzan doc Drew: The Man Behind the Poster for the story of how it came to be), the promotional machine for The Thing was firing on all cylinders.

 

Want another teaser for The Thing?  Here’s an even earlier one!

The Silver Bullet ~ Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

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Synopsis: The Guardians must fight to keep their newfound family together as they unravel the mysteries of Peter Quill’s true parentage.

Release Date: May 5, 2017

Thoughts: Surpassing the expectations of audiences and even, I think, its own studio, Guardians of the Galaxy was a late summer splash in 2014.  Elevating star Chris Pratt to A-List status (further cemented the next summer when he headlined Jurassic World) and bringing to the screen heroes that didn’t wear a red cape or a cowl, GoTG was slick, funny, exciting, and fueled with enough adrenaline to power several city blocks.  The hype is big for Vol. 2 when it arrives in May 2017 and this first teaser is but a taste of things to come (not to mention multiple full length trailers).  In all honesty, like the trailer for the original this one is too jokey for my taste but as a whistle whetter, it gets the job done.

Movie Review ~ The Hateful Eight

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In post-Civil War Wyoming, bounty hunters try to find shelter during a blizzard but get involved in a plot of betrayal and deception. Will they survive?

Stars: Samuel L. Jackson, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kurt Russell, Bruce Dern, Demian Bichir, Walton Goggins, Channing Tatum

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Rated: R

Running Length: 187 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  It’s hard to believe that as prolific as Quentin Tarantino has become, The Hateful Eight is only the eighth feature film released by the man with the manic energy and mad love for all things cinema.  Starting off strong with Reservoir Dogs in 1992 before hitting the mega big time with 1994’s Pulp Fiction, Tarantino has developed a definite style that he can reign in when he wants or let loose in most outrageous ways.

Last represented in 2013 with Django Unchained (which netted him his second Oscar for Best Screenplay), The Hateful Eight almost never saw the light of day as early script leaks frustrated the director.  Thankfully, Tarantino’s got good friends and they encouraged him not to be deterred by internet trolls and make the film as he intended.  Tweaking his script and gathering a most impressive line-up of stars, Tarantino has another winner on his hands and one that shows both sides of his cinematic calling card.

In a bloody mash-up of Agatha Christie mysteries and the snowy sci-fi classic The Thing, The Hateful Eight takes place primarily on one set, a haberdashery where strangers gather to wait out a blistering blizzard…but one (or more) of them aren’t who they claim to be.  Tarantino has crafted another memorable set of characters from bounty hunters John Ruth (Kurt Russell, Furious 7) and Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson, RoboCop) to retired General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern, Nebraska) to newly minted sheriff Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins, American Ultra).  Ruth has chained himself to Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Spectacular Now), a wanted woman that faces the hangman’s noose once they arrive in Red Rock, Wyoming.  Also factoring into the mix is aloof gunsman Joe Gage (Michael Madsen, Die Another Day), Bob (Demian Bichir, A Better Life), and Oswaldo (Tim Roth, Selma).

How these people end up in the haberdashery are told through a framing device that divides the film into a half dozen or so sections.  Each section arrives via a title card that announces the chapter and gives the audience a clue as to what’s coming up.  This being Tarantino, he’s not afraid to go a little out of order so he can keep the mystery hidden a little longer.

For a film taking place in largely one location, it never feels stagey or cagey.  Tarantino and cinematographer Robert Richardson (an Oscar winner for Hugo) make the small outpost look massive, the perfect place for a killer to hide out.  The performances are typically larger than life, with Russell going full John Wayne on his line readings and Jackson being…well…Jackson.  Goggins is an actor I can usually take or leave (mostly leave) but his goofy look and delivery mesh nicely with Madsen’s cool gunslinger and Bichir’s man of few words Mexican.  There’s a lot of buzz around Leigh’s performance and with good reason, the actress has several dynamite scenes that you’ll have to wait some time for…but when they arrive they’re the stuff Oscar nominations are made of.

Tarantino and The Weinstein Company are taking a unique approach to its release of The Hateful Eight.  Tarantino filmed the movie in “glorious 70MM” and several cities are playing host to a Road Show version of the film, complete with an overture and intermission.  If you can find this version, make sure to catch it because it gives you a full movie-going experience, recapturing the way movies were released back in the heyday of moviemaking that Tarantino pines so longingly for.  It’s also an opportunity to hear the great Ennio Morricone’s haunting score during the overture.  It’s crazy Morricone has never won an Oscar and his work here might finally right that wrong (though he’ll have stiff competition from John Williams with Star Wars: The Force Awakens).

At 187 minutes the movie is a commitment and I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t get a little snoozy during the first half.  It feels as long as it is…but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  When it does let loose, it becomes a graphic cornucopia of blood and brain matter and one character ends the film covered head to toe in gore.  The wait for this is most certainly worth it, especially when the strings are being pulled by so many talented contributors.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Hateful Eight

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Synopsis: In post-Civil War Wyoming, bounty hunters try to find shelter during a blizzard but get involved in a plot of betrayal and deception. Will they survive?

Release Date:  December 25, 2015

Thoughts: It’s still hard to believe that Quentin Tarantino has only directed eight feature films (I not counting the outings where he did additional filming or directed as part of an anthology)…but it’s impressive that each one has been a not-so minor classic.  Anyone that has an appreciation for film should also have an appreciation for what Tarantino (Django Unchained) does, cinematically, with each of his films.  From the cast to the score to the script to the production design to the cinematography, Tarantino shows time and time again in each and every frame that he celebrates film through and through.  True, his proclivity for extreme subjects doesn’t leave him open to be fully embraced by audiences with quieter tastes, but his fans (myself included) always look forward to his next endeavor.

The Hateful Eight is one to get excited about.  Filled with a stable of Tarantino favorites (and a few that you can’t believe have never worked with him before) and made in “glorious 70MM” this western drama takes place primarily on one set over one night…a bold move to make from an already bold director.  This first teaser is a sight to behold, it gets the juices flowing and gives me faith that I can make it through another busy holiday schedule if this is going to be my reward.  Can’t wait.

Movie Review ~ Furious 7

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Deckard Shaw seeks revenge against Dominic Toretto and his family for the death of his brother.

Stars: Paul Walker, Jason Statham, Lucas Black, Tyrese Gibson, Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster, Vin Diesel,Djimon Hounsou, Kurt Russell, Tony Jaa, Dwayne Johnson,Nathalie Emmanuel, John Brotherton, Iggy Azaela

Director: James Wan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 137 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  While preparing to write my review of the seventh film in the lucrative Fast and the Furious franchise, I went back to my review of 2013’s Furious 6 to make sure I didn’t self-plagiarize that entry.  Turns out I was in for a challenge because reading over my thoughts on the previous chapter confirmed my suspicions…that Furious 7 is nearly the exact same film.

Now if this were the newest release in any other long-running series I likely would have gone after the filmmakers for lack of creativity or the general laziness that can befall a cash-cow like these films have been for Universal Studios.  What started in 2001 as a run of the mill action film with a lack of brain cell activity has come a long way, arguably getting better and more assured with each passing episode.  There’s a decidedly set formula in the way the Fast & the Furious vehicles are assembled and why mess with something that works so well?  The answer to that question?  You don’t.

Before we move forward I need to put a disclaimer that it’s impossible to discuss Furious 7 without giving away some spoilers on events that happened in the first six films.

Picking up not quite where Furious 6 left off (but before the third entry The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift takes place – figure THAT one out!) it’s not long before Dom (Vin Diesel, Riddick), Brian (Paul Walker), Letty (Michele Rodriguez, Turbo), Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson, Hercules) and the rest of their comrades are targeted by the brother of the villain featured in the last film.  Proving that revenge is a dish best served at 180mph, Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham, The Expendables 3) is mad as hell and out for blood against those who nearly killed his baby brother (Luke Evans, Dracula Untold).

What I’ve enjoyed so much about these movies over the years is their ability to maintain a consistent crew of familiar faces that keep coming back film after film.  Maybe introduced as a minor character originally, each entry seems to shift the power around and plays off the strengths of what each actor brings to the table.  Not that this is high art requiring application of the Meisner technique to each line of dialogue, but even with certain limitations on acting expertise no one embarrasses themselves…well, almost.

The star of the show where action is concerned continues to be Vin Diesel and, bless his heart, he tries so dang hard in this one to bolster his cred by delivering his lines with sincerity.  However, with his cue ball cranium and muscles that can’t be contained in any shirt large or small, he’s maybe the one person that swings and misses while attempting to be the dramatic heavy.  With the tragic death of co-star Paul Walker halfway through filming, it’s evident that large parts of the script were re-written and I’m guessing Diesel was tapped to lay the groundwork for the film’s touching send-off and, to his credit, Diesel is never anything less than totally committed to getting the job done.

This isn’t a film that has the ghost of Paul Walker hovering above it, however, even though you can easily tell which scenes were shot with a double with his face being CGI-ed in later.  The overall feeling of the movie is onward and upward and I think Walker would have been proud of how it all turned out.  He’s involved with several of the film’s crazy action sequences, passages that include souped-up cars being dropped from airplanes and flying through skyscrapers.  These are impressively staged, totally ridiculous, and supremely enjoyable.

It’s when the film slows down that there are problems.  With director James Wan (The Conjuring, Insidious) taking over for Justin Lin there seems to be an effort on Wan’s part to balance high-impact action with treacly familial drama…and who knows how much of that was influenced by Walker’s death.  Seems like poor Jordana Brewster (who seems to add two new teeth with each film, I swear she has 32 teeth on the top row alone) suffered the most, with the script sequestering her away from the action to protect her pregnancy…which is a ludicrous sham they don’t even bother to make believable.  Brewster is supposedly far enough along to know the sex of the baby but has a stomach so flat you could play Jenga on it.

Wan’s trademark loop-de-loop cinematography seems like a nice match with the action onscreen though it’s overdone in the lengthy finale that has our gang racing around a downtown cityscape straight out of Grand Theft Auto as they try to keep a valuable piece of technology out of the hands of a villainous terrorist (Djimon Hounsou, How to Train Your Dragon 2) while avoiding getting run down by Statham.  I’m skipping over a lot of plot twists and turns that I simply don’t have the time or the word count to explain in full…it’s beside the point anyway because the film is really about getting to that next action sequence.

I’ve no doubt that eighth, ninth, and tenth entries of this series will be produced and if they can maintain the forward motion of their predecessors I’m all in favor.  Leaving several loose ends dangling while tying up one big one, there’s more gas in this Furious tank and I’m happy to buckle up for more.

The Silver Bullet ~ Furious 7

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Synopsis: Ian Shaw seeks revenge against Dominic Toretto and his crew for the death of his brother.

Release Date:  April 3, 2015

Thoughts: Hi, my name is Joe and I’m a fan of the Fast and the Furious franchise.  This wasn’t as hard to admit as one might think and it’s an admission made easier by the fact that what started as a B-movie rip off of Point Break (trading surfboards for cars) has evolved into an engaging action series that improves with each passing installment.  Sure, 2 Fast 2 Furious stumbled and I may be the only one that enjoyed The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift but the last three films (especially 2013’s breathless Fast & Furious 6)  have upped the ante without turning the whole affair into a self-aware camp fest.  Though the dark cloud of star Paul Walker’s tragic passing will likely hang heavy over the film, I’m hoping that the extra production time allowed director James Wan (The Conjuring) and writer Chris Morgan (47 Ronin) to orchestrate a fitting torch passing that allows the series to continue.

Mid-Day Mini ~ Backdraft

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Two Chicago firefighter brothers who don’t get along have to work together while a dangerous arsonist is on the loose.

Stars: Kurt Russell, William Baldwin, Robert De Niro, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Scott Glenn, Rebecca De Mornay, Donald Sutherland

Director: Ron Howard

Rated: R

Running Length: 137 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

ReviewBackdraft was one of those films that I responded to fairly well when I first saw it at a second-run theater in the summer of 1991.  Already familiar with the work of director Ron Howard (Parenthood) and as the proud grandson of a firefighter, I remember liking the drama created between two firefighting brothers and enjoying a secondary storyline involving an arsonist that seems to know a thing or two about setting buildings ablaze. 

Viewed nearly 22 years later (!),this film which once seemed epic to me now feels a little too soap opera-y, a feeling aided by the fact that it’s filled with some off-the-mark performances.  Don’t get me wrong, Howard stages some still impressive eye-popping sequences involving fire up close and personal but seen now there’s a curious lack of restraint that made the movie feel longer than it was.

Russell and Baldwin aren’t totally believable as brothers but they find some cohesion in their macho roughness that helps color the film  We’re told that Baldwin has flitted around a lot, much to the disapproval of his older brother who has followed their father’s career path and has become a respected fireman.  When the younger brother gets into the family business and is assigned to the same station as his elder sibling there’s some old wounds that re-open…especially when deadly fires start being set that Russell’s character may be involved with.

This being a Ron Howard movie, there’s a lot going on at all times and the large supporting cast of familiar character actors pop up here and there and are generally put to good use.  Sutherland (Ordinary People) has two short scenes as a jailed arsonist but makes the most of his onscreen time.  De Niro (Silver Linings Playbook) and De Mornay (Mother’s Day) make the most impressive impact in their roles…the most fleshed out in Gregory Widen’s slight script.  While I appreciate Leigh for some of her more out of the box performances her work here is embarrassingly poor…

If the film has lost some heat over the last two decades, it’s only the fault of some changes in taste.  There was a time when these type of emotion-driven, large-scale films played quite well and there’s still value to be found in the film thanks to some strong performances (I forgot to mention that Russell is particularly good here) and Howard’s trademark immersive production design.  If the script could have been elevated a bit and some recasting done we may have had a film that weathered the furnace of time.