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.

The Wolf of Wall Street

ImageIn 1986, a young People’s Critic was playing with his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figures, reading Spiderman comics, and watching Knight Rider; meanwhile The Wolf of Wall Street suggests that there was an entirely different story of the 1980s to tell.  Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio collaborate for the fifth time and the result is their most polarizing effort by far, but also DiCaprio’s greatest performance of his career.

Last year at this exact time, I made quite a bit of noise about Leonardo DiCaprio’s sneaky but brilliant performance as Calvin Candie in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.  This year, I will make even more noise about his turn as Wall Street stockbroker, Jordan Belfort.  The film depicts the rise and inevitable fall of Belfort after he gets a taste of what the high life is like and never stops wanting more.

That “taste” comes in the form of an early scene in the film.  In it, Belfort the naïve intern meets the senior partner of his firm (Matthew McConaughey) for lunch.  Here Belfort is seemingly learning the ropes from a guy who’s been around for a while, but on second look Belfort is actually staring his future self right in the face.  McConaughey fiercely and skillfully poisons and corrupts Belfort but leaves him dazzled and impressed.  He sells Belfort just like another client, setting the wheels in motion for the “wolf” to rear its head.  When his brokerage closes after Black Monday in 1987, Belfort recruits a band of like-minded sleezeballs and opens his own brokerage firm called Stratton-Oakmont.  With consciences checked at the door and a script of Belfort’s own design, Stratton Oakmont prays on the rich and the poor, selling worthless “penny stocks” and reaping commissions hand over fist.  Belfort’s partner in crime, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), represents the “Greed is good” adage from Wall Street to precision.  Together the two cut a swath through the financial market and find themselves absurdly wealthy and yet impossibly insatiable. Balfort symbolically leaves stability behind when he leaves his  kind and caring wife, Teresa (Cristin Milioti) for sexpot, Naomi (Margot Robbie).

While clearly a Scorsese film, the director’s presence from a technical standpoint is rather restrained.  He fills the frame with decadence, debauchery, and dishonesty, but never has he relied on his actors to make a film work as much as he does here.  Fortunately, they are up to the task, but this circumstance is why The Wolf of Wall Street is not the classic Scorsese film that it could have been.  Nonetheless, like all other Scorsese films, the plot is nothing but a mode at which to create a commentary on a deeper subtext.  Belfort’s story is used as a way for the filmmaker to tell a story about intoxication, greed, and the destruction of the American fabric.  He does all of this with a playful tone however, which is what gives the film such energy!  The irreverence of this film is impossible to capture into words and that’s exactly what Scorsese intended.  With a running time of three hours, it is clear that Scorsese did not want to shy away from the bacchanalian excess that plays such a large part in the film.  At the risk of hitting the audience over the head with this fact, the drug of choice for most characters is the “lude” (short for Quaalude), which tenaciously reflects the conduct of everyone in this film.  In one scene, high on ludes, DiCaprio has lost all sense of mobility and yet must crawl, writhe, and tumble his way to his Ferrari in the hopes to then drive home and stop Donnie from revealing money laundering evidence into a tapped phone.  This scene is one of only a few characteristically Scorsese scenes, and for DiCaprio it is particularly impressive.  Never has DiCaprio been more physical, comedic, energetic, and kinetically charged than he is in this film.  Jay Gatsby would literally implode after one second in Jordan Belfort’s shoes.

In a montage towards the end set to the Lemonheads cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson,” the line “Every way you look at it, you lose,” critically suggests that the intoxication of the previous 150 minutes is beginning to ware off.  We have a moment to finally catch our breaths after the yachts, the mansions, the sex, the money, and the helicopters are all out of sight and we are amazed at what we’ve witnessed.  
After an Academy member premier of the film, a screenwriter very publically shouted, “Shame on you!” at the legendary director.  Accordingly, I witnessed several people walk out of the screening that I was in. Certainly, the world DiCaprio and Scorsese explore this time around is fearlessly audacious.  Nonetheless, the film is based on Belfort’s own memoir, and the screenplay is co-written by the man who wrote and produced The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire, Terence Winter.  Those shows and this film all have the united goal of exploring morally bankrupt people who fill that void with the greatest drug of all, money.  Our society is badly hooked on this drug and as good as we are at hiding the evidence of what greed has done to us, stories like The Wolf of Wall Street serve as reminders, reminders that make some filmgoers uncomfortable.  Still, as much of a fan as I am of this film, I submit that The Wolf of Wall Street is Goodfellas-Lite: Henry Hill enters stock market.  I think a 5 and ½ hour American nightmare double feature is in my future!  A-

The Wolf of Wall Street is rated R and has a running time of 3 hours.  Look out for many recognizable faces in supporting roles including the real life Jordan Belfort.  This film is packed to the brim – there is so much to discuss and mention, but this review is long enough! 
Also, prepare yourself for that ‘ludes’ Ferrari scene, it’s phenomenal! 

The World’s End

ImageWell ladies and gentlemen, the Cornetto trilogy has finally come to a close.  Whether you knew it or not, director Edgar Wright and writer/actor/producer Simon Pegg teamed up in 2004 to create the most loosely connected cinematic trilogy of all time beginning with Shaun of the Dead, followed by Hot Fuzz in 2007, and culminating in 2013 with The World’s End.  The films share no characters, plot devices, settings, or  really any foreseeable connective quality.  What they do share is actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, passing references to a popular British ice cream treat called Cornetto, and a few surprises for die-hard fans.  Otherwise, these three films are as unrelated as could be.  What we’re left with is a social commentary wrapped up in an inside joke that unfortunately has no solid punch line.

The World’s End follows Peter, Andy, Oliver (also known as ‘Oman’ because of an unfortunate birthmark shaped like a 6 on his forehead), and ringleader Gary.  In 1990, Gary (Simon Pegg) and his four best friends attempted and failed to complete “The Golden Mile,” a 12 tavern pub crawl in their hometown of Newton Haven that ends at a particular pub named The World’s End.  Twenty years later, Gary’s life has paled in comparison to that fabled night two decades ago, and while he has not quite left the wild days of his youth behind, his friends have.  After recounting his happier days at a rehab session, Gary decides to reconnect with his reluctant friends and convince them to give “the Golden Mile” one more go.    

The World’s End does very well moving from point A to point B providing lively introductions to the characters and Hangover-style laughs as the group of friends reminisce over past antics and attempt to reclaim the passion of their youth.  Pegg’s performance as Gary is uproarious and sharp.  His reaction to Andy (Nick Frost) ordering a tap water rather than a proper pint is comic perfection, and his various monologues are quick witted, fast, and smart.  Unfortunately, the film hits a stumble moving from point B to point C and does a world class face plant on its way to point D. 

I want to preface this next point by saying that I do not think From Dusk Til Dawn is a good film, nor do I feel that The World’s End is a bad film, yet a comparison must be made.  From Dusk Til Dawn, the George Cloony/Quentin Tarantino vampire western, is notoriously critiqued in the following way: “It was pretty good until the vampires showed up.”  The World’s End will likely receive similar word of mouth, except replace “vampires” with “alien robots.”  The movie does not come entirely off the rails upon the revelation of alien robots, but the tone becomes uneven and “ludicrous” becomes a word that might be used to describe the events from that point forward.  Proponents of the film will cite Shaun of the Dead as a film that similarly injects a sudden influx of horror into an otherwise silly comedy.  However, the mixing of genres in that film works far better than in this one.  The “body snatching” alien storyline interrupts all of the progress made in the film’s first half and unfortunately leads to an incredibly unsatisfying conclusion.  

The World’s End is admittedly British.  By this, I mean that the humor, styling, and overall mood of the film is dry and at times very silly.  Fans of this type of humor know what I mean, and those who go through life saying, “I don’t understand what’s so funny about Monty Python and the Holy Grail” should stay miles away from The World’s End.  The film works somewhat well as a critique on the globalization of society where the boys find the pubs they once loved for their individuality becoming increasingly “starbucked,” resembling one another in every detail.   Additionally, Wright and Pegg have written a film that cleverly alludes to films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and John Carpenter’s The Thing in quite nuanced and ingeniously fresh ways.  Quite a bit works in The World’s End, but ponderous choices are made from time to time that will leave audiences scratching their heads.  Overall, The World’s End is funny but also preposterous, and it fails to successfully convey a satisfactory point about being middle-aged or the loss of youth, both of which are so strongly introduced in the film’s first half.  I for one would enjoy a film about these five guys rehashing the past and drinking – end of story.  There is no doubt that Wright and Pegg are a good team, and while Pegg is becoming more of a household name thanks to high profile roles like Scotty in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek films, he still has plenty of passion for his roots.  As they leave the “Cornetto” behind, I think strong collaborations are in store for the future.  B-

The World’s End is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 49 minutes.  Aside from Pegg and Frost, the cast also features some interesting cameos (some more obvious than others) as well as Martin Freeman (currently playing Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films), who successfully revives the phrase “WTF,” and Rosamund Pike (soon to be seen in David Fincher’s Gone Girl) who successfully revives the phrase “oh crumbs.”

Django Unchained

ImageQuentin Tarantino has said publicly that he wants to retire after his tenth film. He is looking to leave behind a strong filmography that shows no weakness or slump at the end. His eighth entry (counting the Kill Bill volumes separately) into this abstract Decalogue is Django Unchained, and it may be his greatest achievement since Pulp Fiction.

Django Unchained is the finest American slavery period bounty hunter Western ever made, but clearly that doesn’t mean much. As preposterous as that description is, that’s what is so great about a Tarantino film; he digs deep into a traditional genre and develops it into something distinctive. The same can be said about his Holocaust revisionist historical war film, Inglorious Basterds. The title character, Django (Jamie Foxx), is a slave with a horrific past who through a chain of auspicious events becomes partnered with a slavery opposed ex-dentist and current bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). This partnership is sealed with an agreement that Schultz will help Django find and free his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from an infamous Southern plantation.

Django Unchained is void of any superfluous substance. From the opening scene of dialogue where Django and Schultz are introduced all the way to the final “showdown,” Django Unchained has momentum and remains in stride. Tarantino should win his second Original Screenplay Oscar since no other film that can be nominated for this category combines such compelling dialogue with such a spirited and ambitions story. The film unfolds in a series of distinct acts. Furthermore, Tarantino takes his flair for the irregular timeline to a more subtle place by interjecting small contextual flashbacks at key points to reveal critical or entertaining pieces of background that enhance an approaching scene. You may never look at the Ku Klux Klan, or Don Johnson for that matter, the same way again.

The cast is impeccable and is sprinkled with familiar faces beyond the leads, but the leads are all excellent. Christoph Waltz gives Tarantino another Oscar worthy performance as the film’s moral compass, Dr. Schultz. Schultz’s character also works to deepen and broaden Foxx’s turn as Django. Django has a goal, but lacks direction and Schultz literally provides that for him, which gives Foxx some real dimension and power. However, the film’s crown jewel is found in the film’s closing acts when Leonardo DiCaprio appears as Calvin Candie, owner of the massive and legendary plantation known as Candyland. DiCaprio’s performance is a sneaky one, and while initially campy, it becomes very real all too quickly. His character shows a severe authenticity as a symbol for the evils of supposed “gentlemen” during a deeply deranged time in American history. As fun as Django Unchained is to watch, it is still a Quentin Tarantino movie, which implies vulgarity and violence. It delivers on both of those qualities to excess, which is a good thing in this case. As part of the Western genre, a lot of justice is sought out against a lot of bad people, and a six-shooter is basically the only tool. The balance between good acting, strong writing, unpredictable circumstances, and sudden bursts of violence creates a suspenseful tone that could not otherwise be achieved. Django Unchained is a front-runner for one of the year’s best films as well as a front-runner for one of Tarantino’s best films. If this is any indication of what the nearly 50-year-old director has left in him, it is hard to imagine him walking away after stepping behind a camera only two more times. A

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