Movie Review ~ Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

2


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 ~ The Hateful Eight

4

hateful_eight_ver10

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

hateful_eight_ver2

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.

The Silver Bullet ~ Machete Kills

machete_kills_ver5

Synopsis: The U.S. government recruits Machete to battle his way through Mexico in order to take down an arms dealer who looks to launch a weapon into space

Release Date:  September 13, 2013

Thoughts: Though 2010’s Machete was far from a blockbuster, director Robert Rodriguez is bringing the character back that was first introduced in a faux trailer attached to his Grindhouse collaboration with Quentin Tarantino.  I found the first film to be typical Rodriguez: messy, over-the-top, and exactly the kind of film that it was advertised to be.  This sequel looks to be more of the same with craggy faced Danny Trejo being surrounded by busty babes (including Sofia Vergara, Amber Heard, and Lady Gaga in her film debut) and lots and lots of weapons of physical destruction.  Its grimy feel fits right into the throwback movement that Rodriguez and Tarantino have such an affinity for so expect another small win for the loopy duo.

Movie Review ~ Django Unchained

3

django_unchained_ver9

The Facts:

Synopsis: With the help of his mentor, a slave-turned-bounty hunter sets out to rescue his wife from a brutal Mississippi plantation owner.

Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson, Gerald McRaney, Dennis Christopher, Laura Cayouette, M.C. Gainey, Don Johnson, Kerry Washington,

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Rated: R

Running Length: 161 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  If you’re headed into a Tarantino film chances are you are expecting certain mainstays: coarse language, outrageous violence, non-linear storytelling, an eclectic soundtrack, and Samuel L. Jackson.  This holiday season, right in time for Christmas, Tarantino is releasing his latest epic yarn that thankfully gives his audiences/fans exactly what they’ve come for – amped up a few notches.  Django Unchained is one of Tarantino’s most enjoyable films, one that takes the standard spaghetti western and gives it a nice bristle brush scrubbing thanks to an assured bravado most filmmakers today wouldn’t dare to employ.

Beginning in 1858, Tarantino opens his film with slave Django (Foxx) trudging along in chains through a desolate landscape after being sold at auction.  A superlative theme song and the director’s trademark bold titles establish that the movie is operating in a slightly altered reality, though it is set in the heart of a country on the brink of civil war.  This was the age of slavery and the film pulls no punches in how black men and women were treated, painting a fairly revolting picture on the way. 

All hope seems lost for Django until a bounty hunter by the name of Dr. King Schultz (Waltz) waltzes into his life and changes his path from plantation to salvation.  Schultz needs Django to help identify a trio of wanted men…and in exchange he will give him his freedom and a split of the earnings.  When this initial bounty hunt show promise, the men decide to team up for a winter until Django can return to Mississippi and find his wife (Washington). 

The first half of the picture is really a breezy buddy film as Django and Schultz make a killing (har har) tracking down the men that are wanted dead or alive.  In between scenes of gruesome violence/vengeance there are some solid exchanges that Foxx and Waltz work wonders with.  Waltz still shines from his Oscar winning turn in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds and returns in another memorable performance here in a role tailor-made for him.  I often find Foxx to be a little overrated but his work as Django is exciting and commendable – starting off as a man with spirit but without hope, you gradually see the life reentering his body as his friendship with Schultz thickens and a reunion with his wife draws nearer. 

It’s about halfway through the movie that things take a curious, but no less interesting, turn as Schultz and Django set their sights on finding the location of Django’s wife Broomhilda von Shaft (just one of the memorable character names  along with Jinglebells Cody, Tennessee Redfish, Chicken Charlie, and Lara Lee Candie-Fitzwilly).  Information comes to them that Broomhilda or “Hildy” is now the property of one Calvin Candie (DiCaprio)…a silver spoon fed plantation owner Django and Schultz must outsmart if they are to save the girl and make it out alive.

The final act of Django Unchained plays out in Candie Land, and it in and of itself could have been expanded into an entire film thanks to some fascinating dialogue from Tarantino, scenes of violence that are both hysterical and horrifying, and a troupe of actors doing some very brave work when you consider their previous film roles.  It’s touchy subject matter but instead of shying away from it, Tarantino encourages all involved (the audience included) to go with it and stay engaged. 

Some early reviews of the film criticized Django Unchained for being too talky and long but I found it to be easier to get through than Inglourious Basterds (which I also liked).  This is probably because the nearly three hour film is episodic in nature so it just has a natural flow from one adventure to another. 

In typical Tarantino fashion, the violence is surreal, stylish, and in your face.  Nearly everyone comes face to face with a bullet at some point and they do one of two things: go quietly or die in screaming agony as the blood drains from them.  It’s gory and grotesque but there’s something definitively cinematic about it that keeps it from feeling too exploitative. 

Though Tarantino packs his film with more recognizable character actors than I’ve seen in any film recently (including Ted Neely – the Jesus Christ Superstar of stage and screen), the leads carry the film with ease.  In addition to the strong work from Waltz and Foxx, you have Washington playing the physically and emotionally taxing role of Django’s wife with beautiful confidence and Johnson as a Colonel Sanders looking plantation owner resisting the urge to be a cartoon.  Johnson in particular has a riotous passage with would-be Klansmen that wind up fighting over the sacks they wear over their head.  It’s a wonderful scene courtesy of Tarantino that gets the audience laughing at the bigoted bickering.

DiCaprio finally figures out the formula to turning in an award-worthy performance: be a supporting player.  Though many have cried foul that DiCaprio hasn’t received the award recognition he deserves over the years, I’d say that he really hasn’t truly earned it in any picture up until this point.  Here, in a large supporting role, he does his best work in ages as a vicious southern brat that has the tables turned on him in royal fashion.

Though much of the pre-release Oscar buzz has been for DiCaprio, I’d argue that the best performance in the film belongs to Jackson as DiCaprio’s head slave.  As slyly evil a character as I’ve seen Jackson play, he goes all out in the vile department without tipping the scales to farce.  I actually didn’t recognize Jackson the first few frames of the film he’s in, but once it sunk in and the audience saw him…it truly was his picture to steal and that’s exactly what he does.  If DiCaprio is to receive an Oscar nomination (as he probably will) here’s hoping that Jackson gets one as well.

The movie has about four endings and as the third hour was approaching I do admit that I was ready for the film to end.  Tarantino just can’t leave well enough alone (or resist a personal and oddball cameo) and while the ending was satisfying and felt right, I also wouldn’t have minded if it had said its goodbye twenty minutes prior.  That may not have worked for some audiences that demand explanation or a true wrap-up…but it would have made the ending of the film feel as special as the proceeding two and a half hours.

Tarantino has done wonders with this genre…turning the Western picture into what he’s called a Southern.  It’s a fast, funny, ferocious affair and it’s either going to send you out of the theater dazed and amazed or dazed and confused.  I thought it was a splendid film for mature audiences and wouldn’t mind putting it on my end of the year Best of lists.