Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood poster

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Screenwriter: Quentin Tarantino

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, and a lot of familiar Tarantino regulars (and at least one of their kids)

Do you like beautiful people doing interesting things? Then you like Hollywood, and that’s precisely what Quentin Tarantino is illustrating in his 9th film, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. If there’s one thing you know about Quentin Tarantino, it’s that he loves movies, especially of a certain era. If there are two things you know about Quentin Tarantino, it’s that he admires the shit out of Japanese martial arts films and spaghetti westerns. Many of his films include trademarks of these two genres, and with the title of his latest film, he is paying homage to perhaps the greatest spaghetti western director of all time, Sergio Leone, a man responsible for two landmark epics, Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in America. Both of those films invoke the common fairy tale prelude, Once upon a time as a way to express the opening of a narrative that will be about past events, but the phrase also signals a fable-like quality within the work. The same can certainly be said about Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood.

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is the story of a fading TV actor, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his friend and stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Dalton has the starring role in a weekly gunslinger western called Bounty Law, a program similar to the 1960’s series Wanted Dead or Alive starring Steve McQueen. Booth’s career has hit a few snags so to speak, but Dalton remains adamant on keeping him as his exclusive stuntman as well as employing him as his chauffeur and occasional housekeeper. Most importantly though, Dalton has dreams of stardom on par with the greats of Hollywood’s Golden Age. The film takes place in Los Angeles in 1969, just as classic Hollywood is losing its grip to new Hollywood and the post-classical movement.

Many will cite this as being the least “Tarantino” of all of his films, whatever that means; however, while the plot is perhaps more loose than his previous films, Tarantino captures the atmosphere of this dynamic time with great success. There’s a lot going on in this film, which is why I think some will have a tough time figuring out what to make of it. On one hand, we have Dalton’s quest for fame, attempting to leverage some television notoriety into a film career without aging out, becoming typecast, or losing his game all the while battling an internal conflict about whether he is worthy of fame in the first place. Then we have Booth’s ambiguous, deliberate sojourn through the land of broken dreams. However, he appears mostly unaffected. His role is almost Virgil-like, like a guide on a personal tour through hell with the Manson family smack dab in the center. I’m sure most readers know by now that the film costars Margot Robbie as Sharron Tate, a Hollywood starlet forever tragically linked to the madness of the Mansons. While the two main characters are on two very separate personal journeys, Tarantino craftily balances this film on the relationship between the two men allowing the film to move along nicely despite their uniquely different paths. Moreover, the friendship between Dalton and Booth is smart, clever, and relatable. There’s no arbitrary cliché-constructed conflict dropped on the audience for cheap drama. There’s a sense of history between them both, and this comes through mostly thanks to the exquisite performances given by Pitt and most notably DiCaprio. The scenes of DiCaprio prepping and delivering various shots as an actor within the film are some of his best work.  

Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton
DiCaprio as Rick Dalton

The ending of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood will most likely be the greatest discussion topic and conversation piece produced by the film, and it is a doozy. It’s those ellipses (…) that set this film apart from the Leone films I mentioned earlier, and it is there where I could start to go down the rabbit hole. However, not to spoil anything, all I will say is that I am already eager to see the film a second time with the ending in mind, and my guess is I’ll appreciate the film differently and quite a bit more upon a second viewing. A familiar experience with most of Tarantino’s films, but this one may be one of his most fascinating conclusions of any film he’s made.

Pitt and DiCaprio in Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood
This won’t be the last time we see these two paired up in a film.

What we have here is a modern-day auteur at the top of his technical game taking chances and making movies that still make an audience appreciate the medium and the experience it can offer. There’s tremendous atmosphere populated with thrilling takes on movies, dreams, American culture, music and the divisive nature of society. Plus there’s a bitching soundtrack curated no doubt for some of the blunt references they make to the film’s plot. The soundtrack also being the medium for Tarantino’s only cameo, a device in nearly all of his films, some being overt (Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, Django Unchained), and some being practically non-existent (Inglorious Basterds, Kill Bill, Jackie Brown). Speaking of cameos, this film has some good ones that are not Tarantino, and I will not spoil any of them. Just go see this movie. I have almost nothing bad to say about this movie other than it’s not Tarantino’s best, which is to say it’s the best movie of 2019 so far by a long shot, just not the best movie of 1994. A

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is rated R and has a running time of 2 hours and 41 minutes.

Fury

Fury“Let there be WAR!” said Brad Pitt after his wife Angelina Jolie was tapped to direct the upcoming World War II film Unbroken. Pitt stars in his own WWII film, Fury. We won’t know which is the better of the two until Unbroken premiers in December, but Pitt’s film does not disappoint. Your move, Jolie.

In Fury, Pitt plays sergeant Don “Wardaddy” Collier who commands the five-man tank crew of a commandeered German tank dubbed “Fury.” Wardaddy’s crew includes four other militarily nicknamed men: driver Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Peña), artillery expert Grady “Coon-ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal), canon operator Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LaBeouf), and newbie Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), later christened “Machine.” The film makes much of these alternative identities as it delves deep into the effects of war. Lerman’s Norman is the “greenhorn” of the group, having been in the army only 8 weeks when he is assigned to Pitt’s crew. Norman’s previous experience as a typist has not prepared him one bit to assume the gunman post in Collier’s squad, and it certainly has not prepared him to clean up the remains of the previous man who occupied it. Now, as the US pushes its way into Germany and Hitler’s forces grow more desperate Wardaddy and company are sent on mission after dangerous mission to secure German cities.  This is the crux of the film’s plot and while it can be viewed as modest or simplistic, it works.

Fury is directed by David Ayer whose most recent film End of Watch was a sensational piece of guttural tragedy; Fury captures that same tone vividly. While thousands of war films exist, a majority of which are World War II films, Fury rejuvenates the genre with powerful scenes of tank warfare that drip with intensity and ring with authenticity. A scene of note involves the crew facing off against a German Tiger tank where every move must be calculated to the most frustratingly critical degree or it’s lights out. What Ayer accomplishes with both his direction and his screenplay is that he strikes an engaging balance between the rigors of war and the humanity of its soldiers.

The sets are truly remarkable and combined with some of the camera work they can be devastatingly heartbreaking in the style of Saving Private Ryan or even Gone with the Wind. Still at times the film can feel a bit uncoordinated and even cliché especially in some of the dialogue, but Fury thrives more on action and mood than it does conversation. This is also a far more bloody and violent film than I expected. Some of the horrific gruesomeness may have been avoidable, but when looking at the film’s overall ambition, much of it is warranted. At the end, Fury is a surprisingly refreshing look at warfare and camaraderie that is well-acted and feels unique. Angelina Jolie has her work cut out for her. B+

Fury is rated R and has a running time of 2 hours and 15 minutes.

12 Years a Slave

ImageThere’s a moment towards the end of 12 Years a Slave where Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) looks directly into the camera and seemingly at the audience.  He stares for an extended moment, as if to say, “Can you believe that only 150 years ago – this happened…in the United States of America?”  12 Years a Slave is the quintessential American slavery-era film; it is heartbreaking, disturbing, tender, raw, and also beautiful.

Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northrup, a free, New York citizen who is a victim of a horrific kidnapping scheme where Southern slave traders abduct free Black citizens and transport them South forcing them back into slavery.  Northup’s life and family are ripped from him so suddenly that it is astonishing.  The title is pragmatically evocative of how long Northrup will endure his injustice, and director Steve McQueen makes sure the audience feels every bit of it as well.

The film is based on Northrup’s own memoir, a literary example preciously rare as so many slaves died before they could tell their stories or were never taught to read and write.  A pervasive struggle Northrup faces in the film is searching for tools or opportunities to write.  The film opens with Northrup covertly trying to make ink out of blackberry juice and fashion a pen out of stray twigs.  McQueen wisely emphasizes the oppressive silencing that occurred in order to, in some way, try to explain how such outrageousness was even possible for so long.

McQueen frames Northrup’s experience by casting recognizable faces as various archetypes of 19th Century Southern society.  Paul Giamatti plays a slave merchant in all of its absurdity, Benedict Cumberbatch plays the hypocritical plantation owner who seemingly appreciates humanity but wants to turn his eyes from the horror he knows is happening right under his nose, and Brad Pitt plays…Jesus; I’m pretty sure he’s playing Jesus.  However, one player, other than Ejiofor, gets to sink his teeth into a role that is far more substantial, Michael Fassbender.  Fassbender plays Edwin Epps, a slave owner who owns Northrup for nearly 10 of his 12 years in slavery.  Fassbender is terrifying; his character is reminiscent of Ralph Fiennes’ character in Schindler’s List, yes – he’s that chilling.  However, what sets him apart from being a typical embodiment of evil is that as the film goes on, it is clear that Epps is mentally ill.  This element does not garner sympathy for his actions, but it does reveal some of the helplessness inherent in a society that avoids the value of human life.  The end result is a decaying infrastructure that eats away at itself until it collapses.

Of course, this is a showcase for Chiwetel Ejiofor, an actor who has been on the brink of greatness for some time now.  Ejiofor’s performance is certainly in the running for the best of the year.  He harnesses strength as he portrays the effects of a dark and obtuse time in human history.  As Solomon Northrup, he leads the audience through a series of events that certainly require a bold and fearless guide.

12 Years a Slave is a moody masterpiece that I’m sure offers more context in repeat viewings, but I don’t know what kind of person would be able to sit through this film more than once.  McQueen contrasts the most abhorrent events of our young country’s history with some beautiful filmmaking, glorifying the Southern landscapes in rich, luscious irony.  His camera is up close and personal, using countless close-ups with the clear objective of putting slavery “in your face.”  The emotion is real and raw, not melodramatic.  Towards the end of the film, Northrup finally breaks down, which is inevitable.  He weeps for what he has missed.  It is a history lesson of the best and worst kind.  A

World War Z

ImageAfter numerous delays, rewrites, reshoots, and budgetary problems, the notoriously troubled film World War Z is finally here, and I am pleased to say that what results is quite a crowd pleaser.

Brad Pitt stars and produces World War Z based on the novel by Max Brooks about a mysterious and fast spreading pandemic that threatens the very existence of mankind.  The twist is that this virus turns its victims into zombies who have no other objective but to spread the disease onward.  Five additional screenwriters share credit (after the aforementioned rewrites) for bringing this story to the screen, but the film feels relatively seamless.  Pitt plays retired UN investigator, Gerry Lane.  Once the outbreak occurs, Lane is notified that his assistance is needed and in exchange his family would be given refuge aboard an aircraft carrier isolated and safe from Z infection.

The film does not waste any time getting to the action.  The infection arrives immediately and with a 12 second incubation period, the danger and terror are exponentially higher. Furthermore, what also helps World War Z rise above expectations is that unlike many other films of this genre, Lane is on his own and free to navigate the globe as needed.  Too often, ‘epidemic’ films put the main character’s family directly into danger causing many of the decisions to be based off of what will keep them safe.  With Lane’s family safely aboard a UN aircraft carrier, Lane makes drastically different decisions with his agenda aimed at protecting mankind, not just his wife and kids.  Lane travels from Pittsburgh to New Jersey to South Korea to Jerusalem to Wales all in search of the answers to this mysterious world-affecting outbreak.  This is exciting stuff!

Director Marc Forster puts together a very intensifying film with a series of very gripping action sequences.  While a couple of night sequences are overly dark and disorienting, his use of various point of view shots, hand held camera, and inspired set pieces deliver an electrifying cinematic experience.  While a supporting cast exists, this is very much Pitt’s movie.  Look out for fast and brief moments from David Morse and Matthew Fox, the latter being such a brief appearance that one can only wonder if his part was severely cut down or if he just jumped in there as a favor to Lost co-creator and Z co-screen writer Damon Lindelof.  Nonetheless, Pitt does all of the heavy lifting for this film.  This is a Brad Pitt-long hair movie, which can be worrisome (see Troy, Meet Joe Black, or The Devil’s Own if you need proof).  It also means it is no-nonsesne Pitt; there will be no Ocean’s 11 charm, Fight Club campiness, or Inglorious Basterds bravado.  Here Pitt gets his sacrificial romantic hero locks on but with kick-ass-short-hair Mr. and Mrs. Smith style results.

The only problem World War Z has is the same one that Man of Steel had last week: topical familiarity and saturation.  The Zombie genre had a major resurgence over the last decade or so, and World War Z comes to the theaters with a far from fresh concept.  Many of the ideas, theories, and plotpoints are reminiscent of things 13 million people saw on The Walking Dead every week.  Nonetheless, World War Z accomplishes a bit more of an accessible zombie story in that it is not heavy on the gore.  Much of the violence of the film happens off screen or away from the camera, and the film’s most effective scenes are those which are the quietest and most suspenseful.  There are also some very interesting scenes early on in the film as the reality of what’s happening begins to wash over the non-infected public.  This semi-original take on a familiar genre buys it just enough cache to be considered worth-while and different.  B+

World War Z is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 55 minutesIt is another example of 3-D post conversion, so it was not filmed in 3-D.  That coupled with the various dark and shaky scenes forces me to recommend the film be seen in 2-D. 

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