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Groupthink doesn't live here, critical thought does.

July 26, 2019

ONCE UPON A TIME IN... HOLLYWOOD

Tarantino’s Gen X Ode to Hollywood Also-rans Dazzles and Disappoints

Once_upon_a_time_in_hollywood_Quentin Tarantino has created a fetishistic cinematic grab-bag of self-referential filmic delights that soars more than it limps, but limp it does. That’s not to say there isn’t plenty of chewy suspense, jaw-dropping performances, lush and grotesque visuals, and music cues to die for. Los Angeles has never looked better on film.

Then there’s this film’s thousands-of-cameos cast, each one bringing his or her A-game to the set. Spot if you can Dakota Fanning, Luke Perry, Michael Madsen, Clifton Collins Jr., Scoot McNairy, or Timothy Olyphant.

Yes this movie is a pure freaking joy. Repeated viewings are all but mandatory. There are exquisite car driving sequences that transport you to a place in Cinema you didn’t know existed. “Once Upon A Time” contains a delicious treasure trove of juicy narrative details to relish even if the film doesn’t work as well as intended. The movie doesn’t earn its phantasmagoric climax of violence. An inexcusable burst of voice-over narration poops the pool. One more edit could elevate this film from an A- to an A. There is no such thing as a perfect movie.  Tarantino seems to accept this as fact for his own idyllic creation.

Satirically, this is Quentin Tarantino’s most personal movie for a host generational reasons. Thematic onion-layers of pop culture references run deep, wide, and continuous. The fantasy is set during the looming cataclysmic moment of the 1969 Charles Manson murders that upended Hollywood culture and put a final nail in the fight-the-subjugation-of-the-man hippie movement that helped fuel Cinema movements such as Blaxploitation and Grindhouse.

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Revenge is a prominent motivating value at play. ‘50s and ‘60s American television and movies taught its citizens to kill, and kill they did. At least, that’s one trenchant dig that one of Tarantino’s theme-speaking characters articulates before this film’s inevitable bloodletting begins. Tarantino rubs his critics’ noses in the dirt, and leaves the audience to contemplate a coup de grace of Grand Guignol spectacle that hits you in the guts. How numb to violence have we become as a society? You’ll get a quiz when you see this movie. If you want gratuitous violence, you’ll get your fill.

Leonardo DiCaprio

Sexual politics of the era goes under a microscope. You learn a lot about a man by the blowjob he refuses. Dig the cool vibe of Brad Pitt's and Leonardo DiCaprio's characters' airtight bromance. Their overflowing joy at playing Tarantino's dynamic comic creations is infectious. Neither actor has ever been so undeniably exquisite.

Brad Kicks Bruce Lee

Right wing capitalist forces that paid ‘50s and ’60s era television to do questionable stuff like sell cigarettes to kids, are skewered within the context of the culture. Tarantino isn’t complaining. He’s telling it like it is/was from a kid who ate up every bit of an American culture that celebrated Bruce Lee, Evel Knievel, Clint Eastwood, and James Bond knock-offs (check out Richard Johnson in “Deadlier Than The Male,” the film that Tarantino screened on the beach in Cannes when he helmed the Palme d’ Or jury in 2004).

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The maverick behind “Reservoir Dogs” takes a metaphoric approach to epochal cultural shifts that upended careers and realities overnight in a deceptively fragile Hollywood ecosystem. Poking fun at lazy actors, passionate directors, and even Bruce Lee, comes with the landscape of filtering American television and movie values of the era into a thematically and satirically rich movie. I dare say there is ten times more thematic and narrative detail in this film compared to any other that Hollywood has produced so far this year. Here is a lovingly prepared filmic buffet of entertainment influences that Tarantino digs for all of their silly and frequently perverse associations.

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There’s a great party scene where Damian Lewis’s Steve McQueen points out Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) to a fellow partier, before switching his attention to Tate’s former fiancé Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsh). McQueen goes on to explain how Sebring still follows Tate around even though she broke off her engagement with him to become engaged to Roman Polanski. McQueen “never had a chance,” but he wanted one. Audiences into such Hollywood mythologies can chew on things like the famous actor who got away with killing his wife, Natalie. Enter Leonardo DiCaprio as television western series “Bounty Law” leading man Cliff Booth to chew scenery like toothpicks. Check out the actual ‘50s television series “Wanted Dead or Alive” with Steve McQueen for backstory.

Once

Al Pacino delivers the film’s inciting incident in a hilarious comic turn playing talent manager Marvin Schwarzs. The bespectacled Mr. Schwarzs gives Cliff a head-spinning wakeup call about the terrible fate of Cliff’s fading career. Playing bad guys on a string of TV shows is a dead end. Whether or not Cliff heads to Italy to make spaghetti westerns with second tier directors, his days are numbered. The truth hits Cliff like a ton of bricks, but his longtime stuntman and personal assistant Rick Dalton (Brad Pitt) isn’t rattled by the inevitable demise of his bread-and-butter, namely Cliff Booth.

QT on Set
 
“Once Upon A Time In…Hollywood” is not Quentin Tarantino’s best film; it may not be his worst, that distinction goes to “Jackie Brown,” but this is his most flawed, possibly even knowingly, if not intentionally. You need grit to make a pearl. 

Leo & Brad

Like Bob Dylan or Elvis Costello, Quentin Tarantino has always stayed ahead of culture. Hypernormalisation is catching up. Cliff Booth can’t make the transition from television to film that some of his peers have successfully done. This film comes at a time when Cinema is dying, if it isn’t already deceased. Movie theaters are closing at a rapid rate because American culture has changed. Audiences don’t know how to act in theaters anymore. There’s always someone turning on a cell phone, or as was the case with the screening I attended, can’t be quiet for more than 40 seconds at a time before verbally commenting on the action on the screen. Hollywood is its own worst enemy. Making endless superhero franchise flicks aimed at 10-year-olds is burying the industry in its own filth. By that standard, "Once Upon a Time in...Hollywood" is a shining example of how different things could be.

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Rated R. 161 mins. (A-)Four Stars

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June 21, 2019

THE OUTSIDER

The OutsiderScreenwriter Sean Ryan cobbles together every Western movie trope he can come up with to create a cliché riddled movie that collapses under the weight of its impure intentions. You won’t find any character development here because every portrayal is as one-dimensional as they come.

“Witness the dark side of the American Dream” is this film’s tagline that pretends such a thing were necessary in the face of a crumbling country that succumbs to mass shootings on a daily basis. Perhaps it’s time to go heavier on sex and romance rather than on American Cinema’s knee-jerk tendency toward gun violence — something to consider.

The cynicism inherent in a movie constructed solely of piecemeal elements of mindless violence is obvious. “The Outsider” is far from the revisionist Spaghetti Western that it imagines itself to be. Here is a movie so derivative that you can set your watch by its roulette approach to satisfying imagined demands of the genre. This isn’t storytelling so much as it is a mishmash of violent sequences stuck together without so much as a second thought given to thematic cohesion. All for the love of revenge, the undying motivation of all Western ideology.  

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Country music singer-turned-actor Trace Adkins is no Kris Kristofferson (see “Heaven’s Gate”). Relying on his gravelly baritone voice, pokerfaced acting style, and a deadpan delivery that would make Clint Eastwood break into laughter, Adkins plays small-town sheriff Marshal Walker. Conflicts surface between Walker and his dumb-as-a-stump son James (Kaiwi Lyman) after James rapes and accidentally kills the wife of Jing Phang (John Foo), an immigrant railroad worker with some martial arts skills up his sleeve. Every roundhouse kick feels like it comes from the sensibilities of a ‘70s television show. Yawn.

John Foo

Poor lighting and a production design that puts your feet to sleep, underscore a film whose hollow religiosity and misdirected sentimentality sit in your stomach like a slow-working poison. “The Outsider” could be taught in film classes as an example of what not to do as a screenwriter. Exploitation is one thing (see “Machete” for an example of a good one), but you have to know the rules of the game. Director Timothy Woodward Jr. and his screenwriter just want a paycheck. Theirs is not a product worth paying to see.

Not Rated. 86 mins. (C-)

One Star

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April 12, 2019

THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE

Man_who_killed_don_quixote_ver3After decades of trying to make this movie, Terry Gilliam has done it. Sadly, it isn’t any good. All of our worst fears, about how Gilliam might inject some sorely needed filmic depth into Miguel de Cervantes’s famously shallow if picaresque novel, are proven just. Here is a movie in search of a story.

The 1605 source material might have inspired authors such as Alexandre Dumas and Mark Twain to write such gems as “The Three Musketeers” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” but Gilliam has lost the thread if he ever even had it. My suspicion is that Gilliam never did have a grip on a story most famous for having its hero tilting at windmills with a jousting pole from atop his horse. It’s a slapstick image that spells deadly trouble for horse and man alike.

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The hook of the book is that society is all wrong; only individuals willing to throw social mores out with the bath water, are able to realize the pure sense of freedom that nature intended. Good luck trying to cozy up to that principal watching “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.”

Billed as an adventure-comedy, this movie is a tragedy. Gilliam got it wrong from the start. Perhaps the filmmaker will learn from his mistake and a movie half as good as “The Fisher King” before his time runs out. For a self-reflexive narrative, complete with a film-within-a-film trope, the sequences don’t add up when the final credits roll. We could have at least had a sex scene. No such luck.

Adam Driver

Adam Driver is squandered as Toby Grison, an ad director working on a commercial in Spain that features Don Quixote and his (frequently abused) squire (read manservant). Toby’s boss (Stellan Skarsgård) gifts the director with a VHS copy of a black and white student film Grison made (“The Man Who Killed Don Quixote”) a decade earlier. Revisiting his film sends Toby on a journey to rekindle connections with actors living in Los Sueños, a nearby Spanish town. Toby reunites with his Don Quixote (Jonathan Pryce); uninspired (would-be) comic set pieces ensue. Yawn. If only there were at least a few funny lines thrown in. Where is Mel Brooks when you need him?

For anyone like myself who holds Terry Gilliam in high esteem in spite of the fact that he hasn’t made a decent film since “Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas” back in 1998, you will need to see this filmic atrocity for yourself. You too will know that, in the end, it was Terry Gilliam who killed Don Quixote.

Not Rated. 132 mins. (C-)

One Star

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