ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD (2019) – Tarantino’s 9th Film Enters Fairy Tale Territory

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once_upon_a_time_in_hollywood

At first glance,  ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD (2019), the ninth film by Quentin Tarantino, seems to be an exercise in style over substance.

It takes place in Hollywood in 1969, and Tarantino masterfully captures the look, feel, and very essence of the time, with impeccable costumes, set design, and a killer soundtrack. Watching this movie, I really felt as if I had been transported via time machine back to 1969. The experience was that authentic.

Tarantino also gets top-notch performances from everyone involved, especially his two leads, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, and Margot Robbie.

The style, the filmmaking expertise, it’s all there.

But the substance? The story?

That’s harder to find because ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD takes its sweet time, and for most of its two-hour and forty-one minute running time, it’s not in a hurry to get anywhere, and so it tells its multiple stories with as much urgency as two guys sitting inside a saloon drinking whiskey. In short, it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

And yet it’s told with an affection that clearly shows this time period and these characters and their stories were a labor of love by Tarantino. And it’s all light and funny, in spite of the fact that it’s built around one of the darkest chapters in Hollywood history, the brutal murder of a pregnant Sharon Tate and her friends by Charles Manson’s insane minions. There is a strong sense of dread throughout the movie, knowing what’s to come, and then— well, then Tarantino decides to have some fun at our expense.

ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD is mostly the story of two men, actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman and best friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).  Dalton is somewhat of a “has-been,” as his last major starring role in a western TV series was from a decade earlier. Now, he’s reduced to playing the villains on 1960s TV shows like MANNIX and THE FBI.

This is clearly wearing on Dalton and is one of the prevalent themes in the movie, of how quickly success can pass one by, and how artists of a certain age need to work harder and be open to reinventing themselves if they want to remain relevant. There’s a lot of truth to this part of the movie. As we age, we have to make adjustments. One of the ways Dalton eventually reinvents himself is by going to Italy to make “spaghetti westerns,” and so it’s easy to see here how Dalton’s story is inspired by the real life story of Clint Eastwood, who did the same thing in the 1960s.

Stuntman Cliff Booth’s best days are also behind him, but he’s taking it much better than Dalton, because, as he says, he was never a star to begin with and so as far as he is concerned he’s still living the dream. He enjoys being Dalton’s “gofer,” driving the actor wherever he needs to go, being a handyman around Dalton’s home, and just hanging out.

Dalton, who lives in a Hollywood mansion, is miserable, while Cliff, who lives in a trailer behind a drive-in movie theater, is happy, but this doesn’t stop the two men from being best friends. They truly like each other and care for each other, and the dynamic between DiCaprio and Pitt in these roles is a highlight of the movie.

And while Dalton and Cliff Booth are fictional characters, their famous neighbors, Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, are not. They are real, and tragically, Sharon Tate’s life was cut short on August 9, 1969 by the insane groupies of Charles Manson.

So, ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD also tells the parallel story of Sharon Tate, and the film really allows its audience to get to know Tate as a person.

These parallel stories move forward until that fateful night in August 1969, and in spite of the comedic elements of this movie, there is a sense of dread throughout, that builds as the film reaches its conclusion, a conclusion that suddenly introduces a major plot twist allowing the film to keep its light tone. I have to admit, for me, this was a head scratcher.

As a result, I’m not so sure ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD works as a whole, but it does have a lot of little parts that work very well.

The best part by far are the two performances by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. They work really well together, but this isn’t a buddy movie, and so they’re just as good if not better in scenes where they are not together. Some of DiCaprio’s best scenes are when Rick Dalton is acting as the villain in a 60s TV western, trying to prove that he still has what it takes. DiCaprio also enjoys a couple of outstanding scenes with a child actor played by Julia Butters who at one point tells him sincerely that his performance with her was some of the best acting she had ever seen.

Pitt’s Cliff Booth is the livelier of the two characters and the one who is larger than life. Cliff, as we learn later, lives in a veil of infamous secrecy as rumor has it that he killed his wife and got away with it. Cliff also enjoys a fun scene in which he tangles with Bruce Lee, one of the more memorable sequences in the movie. 

Cliff is also one of the connections to the Manson family, as he befriends a young woman Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) who’s part of the Manson clan. And a quick shout-out to Margaret Qualley who steals the few scenes she is in with one of the most energetic performances in the movie. She’s terrific.

The scene where Cliff drives Pussycat back to the ranch where the Manson family resides is a perfect microcosm for the entire movie. Cliff brings Pussycat to the ranch, a place he worked at years earlier. Concerned that this group of hippies may be taking advantage of the ranch’s elderly owner, George Spahn (Bruce Dern), Cliff wants to make sure the man is all right.

In an extremely long and meandering sequence, a lot like the entire movie, Cliff gradually makes his way through the various members of the clan, learning where George is supposed to be “napping.” He eventually makes his way to George’s room, and in a scene where you fully expect George to be dead, it turns out he is only napping, and what follows is a highly comedic banter between Brad Pitt and Bruce Dern, which is the route the film ultimately takes.

Which brings us to Sharon Tate. As I said, Margot Robbie is excellent in the role. On the surface, Robbie makes less of an impact than DiCaprio and Pitt because she has far less screen time than they do, but underneath the comedy and the drama Tate’s quiet spirit drives things along, and Robbie’s performance makes this happen.

Unfortunately, people can be defined by their deaths, especially if they were murdered. Tarantino seems to be pushing back against this notion with Sharon Tate. In ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD, Tarantino lovingly crafts Sharon Tate as a real person and not just as a footnote to the Manson murders. The film paints a portrait of Tate as a beautiful person, and really allows that persona to sink into its audience. I liked this. A lot. However, I would have liked it even more had Margot Robbie been given more screen time as Tate. She largely plays second fiddle to main characters Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth.

The entire cast is wonderful. I’ve already mentioned Bruce Dern and Margaret Qualley, but the film also has key contributions from Kurt Russell and Timothy Olyphant.  Also present are Dakota Fanning and Al Pacino, and look fast for Maya Hawke who is currently starring in Season 3 of Netflix’ STRANGER THINGS.

So, you have this meandering movie, which looks terrific and features powerhouse performances by lots of talented actors, with a fairly funny script, although the dialogue is somewhat subdued from the usual Quentin Tarantino fare, and it’s taking its sweet time, taking its audience for a pleasant ride with the knowledge that tragedy awaits. All of this, I didn’t mind and mostly enjoyed.

But it’s the ending of ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD that I find most problematic and is the part of the movie that is the least effective. To avoid spoilers, I will not get into details, but what happens here is the film enters into the realm of alternate reality, and once it does that, well, all that came before must now be looked at with a different lens, and a new question arises, which is, why did we just watch all this? 

In other words, for me, one of the reasons the movie had worked so well up until the ending was it was a piece of historical fiction. Fictional characters were appearing in a real setting (1969 Hollywood) with a canvas of real events in the background. Once these events are changed, the film enters the world of fantasy, of historical reimagining, and once this is done, I don’t think the film possesses the same impact.

In short, to turn this tragic story into a comedy, even with the best intentions, is something I’m not sure entirely works.

At times, ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD seems to be a love letter to Sharon Tate. I liked this part.

At other times, most in fact, it’s a take-no- prisoners shoot-em-up dramedy about an aging movie/TV star and his laid back infallible stunt man. I liked this part, too.

But the last part, the punch line, seems to be Quentin Tarantino’s desire to do what he did to the Nazis in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009) to Charles Manson and his “family.” It’s this last part that, while good for some laughs, seems the most out-of-place.  While there are hints in the film that this is where this story is going to go, it still feels jarring to watch the events unfold, events that change history, and thrust the movie head first into fairy tale territory, appropriate I guess for a movie entitled ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD.

—END—

 

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SECOND LOOK: THE GREAT GATSBY (2013)

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The Great Gatsby Blu-RaySECOND LOOK:  THE GREAT GATSBY (2013)

By Michael Arruda

 

THE GREAT GATSBY was one of my favorite movies last year (see my post from May 12, 2013 for my full review).  In fact, it made my Top 10 List for Best Movies of 2013 coming in at #9. 

 

I liked it so much I decided it was already time for a second look, and so I checked it out again the other day on Blu-Ray.  How well did it hold up? 

 

Pretty well, actually.

 

The biggest difference between seeing it at the movies and watching it at home was the quality of the visuals.  I saw it in 3D at the movies, and I was very impressed with the 3D effects.  The visual splendor of the film is lost somewhat in 2D on the living room screen.  Also, the fast moving camerawork which appeared smooth and perfectly natural at the theater was somewhat jarring on the smaller screen at home. 

 

Bottom line:  even though the Blu-Ray print was crystal clear, the film was nowhere near as visually stunning and impressive as it was in the theater.

 

The living room setting didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the controversial modern soundtrack, however.  I still thought it worked.

 

The strong acting performances hold up as well.

 

I appreciated Tobey Maguire’s performance even more the second time around.  His Nick Carraway is exactly the way I pictured him in Fitzgerald’s novel, and he really nails Carraway’s disillusionment with the people around him, as well as his growing affection towards Gatsby, a man he didn’t know what to make of at first.

 

And while I still enjoyed Leonardo DiCaprio’s interpretation of Jay Gatsby, admittedly I was somewhat less impressed with DiCaprio’s performance during this second viewing. I didn’t find him as spot-on as I did the first time around.  Don’t get me wrong.  DiCaprio is still excellent.  I just wasn’t wowed as much the second time.  Maybe it was because of his more recent and even better performance as Jordan Belfort in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013).

 

Carey Mulligan is just as adorable at home as Daisy Buchanan as she was at the movies, and Joel Edgerton is just as shamelessly confident and coarse as her off-the-charts rich husband Tom. 

 

And the parties are still just as vibrant and fun.

 

However, I still didn’t like the way director Baz Luhrmann handled Gatsby’s first appearance in the movie.  I didn’t like it the first time I saw it, and I liked it even less the second time. It’s probably the phoniest part of the movie, one of the few times the film doesn’t ring true.

 

I still like this version though, and prefer it to the 1974 Robert Redford version.  Its biggest strength is that it does a good job bringing THE GREAT GATSBY to life for modern audiences, without sacrificing the integrity of the story.

 

It’s full of energy and oomph and really puts a charge into F. Scott Fitzgerald’s iconic novel.

 

THE GREAT GATSBY was a must-see film at the movies, and it’s still highly recommended, even at home on Blu-Ray in the comfort of your own living room.  The visuals may not translate as well, but everything else about this vibrant production still rocks.

 

So, go ahead and visit Jay Gatsby.  Like the rest of the guests at his mansion, you don’t need an invitation.

 

—Michael

Blockbuster Movies Open in May

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Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow in IRON MAN 3

Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow in IRON MAN 3

Bring on the May Blockbusters!

After what I’ve considered a rather lackluster crop of movies so far in 2013, the month of May brings out some heavy hitters, and I’m really looking forward to them.

Things start today, Friday, May 3, with the release of IRON MAN 3 (2013).  Sure, it’s the third film in the series, so how good can it be?  Shouldn’t it be falling off in quality somewhat?  Yeah, it should, but the Marvel Superhero movies have enjoyed such a strong run for the past decade with a proven formula, I think the odds are somewhat higher that IRON MAN 3 will play better than a second sequel.

And who doesn’t like Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man?  If there was ever a role he was born to play, Tony Stark is it.  He’s certainly one of the most entertaining superhero alter egos going.  Stark’s more fun to watch than brooding Bruce Wayne, goody-goody Clark Kent, or nice guy Peter Parker.  Heck, Stark is more engaging than Iron Man.

Plus you have Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Pots, and the great Ben Kingsley playing the villain, the Mandarin.

On Friday May 10 THE GREAT GATSBY (2013) opens, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby.  Like Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, if there were ever a role that DiCaprio was born to play, it just might be Gatsby.

The trailers for this one look terrific, as it looks like it’s going to be a visual tour de force, which comes as no surprise, as it’s directed by Baz Luhrmann, the guy who directed ROMEO AND JULIET (1996) and MOULIN ROUGE (2001).  If you’ve seen those movies, you know what kind of visual style Luhrmann brings to the table.

Tobey Maguire also looks like he’s going to make a perfect Nick Carraway, and I like Carey Mulligan a lot, and she’ll be playing Daisy Buchanan.

I just recently finished teaching a unit on THE GREAT GATSBY, and so I’m really looking forward to watching this latest film version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, especially since I’ve never been a big fan of the 1974 Robert Redford version.

On Friday May 17, it’s STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS (2013), J.J. Abrams’ follow-up to his successful STAR TREK (2009) reboot, a film I liked a lot.  I’m a big fan of the original series, and so yes, I was slightly sad to see my favorite characters being portrayed by different actors, but I also happened to really like these new folks, as they all seemed to put their own stamp on the roles while keeping the spirit of the original players.

I also liked the alternate reality part of the story, which explained how these characters and the events in their lives would now be slightly different.  It opened the door nicely for brand new stories and provided a clever defense against die-hard fans who might find fault with future stories that didn’t fit in with the known Star Trek universe.

We turn to laughs on Friday May 24 with the release of THE HANGOVER PART III (2013).  Sure, this series isn’t for everyone, but I find these movies hilarious.  The exploits of Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms) and Alan (Zach Galifianakis) are so over the top ridiculous and insane I just can’t stop laughing.

Again, this is the third film in the series, and so a drop-off is expected, but that doesn’t mean I’m not really looking forward to this one.  I expect to laugh quite a bit.

There are even a couple of scary movies coming out in May.  On the final weekend, Friday May 31, there’s THE PURGE (2013), a promising thriller about a futuristic society that allows crime to run rampant for one night of the year.  It stars Ethan Hawke, and it’s from the producers of the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movies and SINISTER (2012).

That same weekend, though not scary, there’s NOW YOU SEE ME (2013), an interesting looking yarn about a team of illusionists who rob banks.  It’s got a great cast which includes Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, and Elias Koteas.

And earlier in the month, on May 10, there’s the horror film AFTERSHOCK (2013), an intense looking end-of-life-as-we-know-it flick starring Eli Roth.

I’m so looking forward to the May movies.  Bring ‘em on!

—Michael

BODY OF LIES decent thriller from Ridley Scott – Blu-ray Review

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Body of LIes poster

Blu-ray/DVD Review:  BODY OF LIES (2008)

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Michael Arruda

 

I caught up with BODY OF LIES (2008) on Blu-Ray the other day, Ridley Scott’s thriller from 2008 about terrorism in the Middle East.  It stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe, and while both actors do a fine job, DiCaprio in particular, it’s Mark Strong who steals the show as the head of Jordanian intelligence.

 Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a young CIA operative working in the Middle East trying to locate the mastermind behind a series of terrorist bombings.  His superior officer, Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe) works behind the scenes back in the States and the two are in constant contact via cell phone. 

 Hoffman hooks Ferris up with the head of Jordanian security, Hani (Mark Strong) in their efforts to track down the terrorist.  Hani tells Ferris he’s happy to work with him, but under one condition:  “don’t ever lie to me.”  You know right off the bat that this is going to be a problem.

 At Hoffman’s urging, Ferris does lie to Hani, and once Hani finds out, he tells Ferris he no longer will work with him, nor will he be responsible for his safety.  As if he doesn’t have enough on his plate, Ferris finds time to befriend a young nurse Aisha (Golshifteh Farahani), and the two become romantically involved, giving Ferris’ enemies a card they can play against him.

Ferris and Hoffman devise a new plan to catch the elusive terrorist, but things don’t go as expected, and Ferris suddenly finds himself in a predicament in which there seems to be no escape. 

 BODY OF LIES is a decent thriller, but don’t expect anything as intense as the Kathryn Bigelow films THE HURT LOCKER (2008) or ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012).   It’s based on the novel by David Ignatius, and it plays more like a fictional tale than a true to life espionage account.  This isn’t necessarily the fault of the screenplay by William Monahan, which includes realistic and captivating dialogue, and likable characters, but of the story itself, a tale of elaborate plots that seem more at home in a movie than in real life.  Monahan also wrote the screenplay for THE DEPARTED (2006), a film that was actually darker than this movie.

 Although Ridley Scott does a fine job at the helm, for a thriller, the film isn’t all that suspenseful.  The most suspense the film generates comes at the end, when DiCaprio’s Ferris finds himself in the hands of the enemy, and when they start the video cameras rolling, you know exactly what they have in mind for the young CIA agent.  It’s nail biting time, and then some.  But before this, the film, while generally engrossing and entertaining, is not exactly all that intense.

 That being said, you can’t blame Leonardo DiCaprio, because he brings his usual intensity to the role of CIA agent Roger Ferris, and it’s a very similar performance though not as good as his work in THE DEPARTED (2006) and BLOOD DIAMOND (2006), two of my favorite DiCaprio roles. 

DiCaprio also shows off his softer side here, as his scenes with nurse Aisha are warm and enjoyable.  He and Golshifteh Farahani share a nice chemistry together.

And then there’s Russell Crowe. 

 It’s funny about Russell Crowe’s performance here.  He portrays Ed Hoffman as a veteran operative whose best days are behind him.  He works behind the scenes, from the safety of his own home most of the time, communicating to his agent Ferris by constantly talking into his headset while performing mundane duties, like taking his children to soccer practice and grocery shopping.

 He’s supposed to be a man who has let himself go, and the funny thing is, in recent films, that’s how Crowe has appeared.  No longer the beast of a man who was Maximus in GLADIATOR (2000), Crowe has been a rather overweight assassin in THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS (2012) and a rather ineffective Javert in LES MISERABLES (2012).  Life imitating art?

 But the two best performances in BODY OF LIES both come from supporting players.  First, in my favorite performance of the movie, it’s Mark Strong as Hani, the head of Jordanian intelligence.  Strong is one of those actors who looks different in nearly every movie he’s in, and who manages to deliver compelling performances in these films, and his work here in BODY OF LIES is no exception. 

 Strong originates from Britain, but in BODY OF LIES he seems at ease and natural portraying a Jordanian.  If you didn’t know his background, you’d never guess that he wasn’t from Jordan.  Likewise, in his performance as the villainous Frank D’Amico in KICK-ASS (2010), probably my favorite Strong performance, you’d never know he wasn’t from New York City.  Strong has appeared in SHERLOCK HOLMES (2009), GREEN LANTERN (2011), JOHN CARTER (2012) and most recently in ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012).

 As Hani, Strong is suave, confident, and ruthless.  It’s a great performance.

 The other memorable performance in BODY OF LIES belongs to Golshifteh Farahani as Aisha, Ferris’ love interest.  Farahani comes off as genuine and sincere, and she’s a breath of fresh air compared to the deceit which permeates the rest of the characters in this story.  She also projects a heartfelt sensuality not often found in female movie characters.  I absolutely bought the notion that she had feelings for Ferris and that she didn’t have ulterior motives or felt for him because she was turned on by a sense of adventure or daring.  She just genuinely seemed attracted to the guy.  Refreshing.

 BODY OF LIES didn’t blow me away, either with its story or its acting performances, didn’t have me on the edge of my seat, with the exception of the sequence where Ferris is captured by the terrorists, and this comes late in the game, but for its 128 minute running time, it held my interest and succeeded in making its point that our actions the past decade in the Middle East, for right or wrong, are a body of lies.

 —END—