Once Upon A Time in Hollywood

I came to this film with the highest of expectations. It was my most anticipated film of this year, the trailer is fantastic and it covers a period of time that I lived through and remember. The subject of the movie is Hollywood itself and it’s made by Quentin Tarantino. Through the roof were my hopes for the film. Let me preface my more in-depth comments by saying first that I loved the movie, but in total, there are issues and my expectations may have hindered some of my reaction to the movie in both positive and negative ways. As always, this is a personal reflection of how I saw the elements coming together, your mileage may vary.

The best thing you can do for yourself in seeing this film is not to read anything about it beforehand. I’m not simply talking about spoilers, I’m really referring to the impressions that people will have and the surprise that comes from the discovery of what this movie really is. I stayed away from every review and every press release about the movie. It was impossible to avoid some things but I lucked out in that no one revealed how this movie really develops. This is a warning: While I will avoid spoilers, to discuss this film requires that certain concepts be explained and that may inhibit your own reaction to the movie. Proceed with caution or come back after you have seen it.

Tarantino makes movies that are a little bit like a buffet. There are dozens of things to choose from when you want to focus on them, but if you don’t have a plan, you may miss something important, or worse, you can mix dessert choices that simply don’t pair well. From my point of view, he has lingered over some aspects of the film too long and not offered a main course that is fully satisfying. However, the side dishes are solid and the main confection that comes at the end of the story makes the whole thing worth taking in. I notice that many of the people I follow have done rankings of the Tarantino catalog as part of the process of discussing the movie and it seems fitting to offer a little bit of insight in that direction here. Without giving you a complete nine film ranking, I can say that this movie is better in my opinion than “The Hateful Eight” and “Deathproof” but it does not quite scale the heights of “Pulp Fiction” or “Inglorious Basterds”. So that may be an indicator of my tastes and a way for you to measure the film as a consequence.

The three main actors all are terrific but the standout for me is Brad Pitt. As Cliff Booth, the stunt double/gofer to DiCaprio’s Western TV Star Rick Dalton, Pitt gets to be amused, sardonic, detached and invested in a lot of different scenes. His back story is completely unnecessary to the plot but as a character point it is interesting. Which is exactly the kind of thing that Tarantino adds to his stories all of the time. The existence of the scene where he faces off against Bruce Lee only means something at the end of the movie and that may be one of those points that you can see coming and that I am hesitant to get into too much detail about. The same is true of his home life with his pit bull Brandy. There will be a payoff down the road and we can see that something is coming but we don’t know exactly what. Brad Pitt’s best scene however may be a long sequence at the Spahn Ranch, where he encounters something that makes him extremely suspicious and sets up another pay off later on. Although there is a dialogue with two central characters in the sequence, it is really just his facial expressions and general demeanor that makes Pitt sparkle in these scenes.

DiCaprio has a less flashy role here than he did in “Django Unchained“, his previous film with Tarantino. His best moments are on the set of a television show he is guesting on, with a conversation between himself and a young actor (because the word actress is meaningless) and also a conversation he has with himself. In previous films by Tarantino, there is a heavy emphasis on language and conversation. Jules and Vincent are compelling because of the way they take mundane subjects and treat them seriously. Col. Landa hoovers over the conversations he has with the French Dairy Farmer, Shoshanna in her disguise and Lt. Aldo Raine, as if he is a vulture looking for a scrap of dialogue he can rip out and feast on. In “Reservoir Dogs” the opening sequence debating tipping is magnetic. Unfortunately, there is nothing that rises to those heights in this film. The one place that Tarantino may have matched his earlier high standards is in the employment of violence in key moments of the film.

There has been some on-line criticism of the shortage of dialogue for Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate. There is an explanation for this but again, let me warn you, it’s not a spoiler but it will alter your perception of the story...she is a red herring.  Polanski and Tate are peripheral to what the ultimate outcome is. If that sounds strange because you thought this was a film about the Manson Murders, well, be ready for that Tarantino twist. This is a wish fulfillment fairy tale, in the mode of his best film in my opinion “Inglorious Basterds”.  The movie takes us down a path of detailed history about Hollywood in 1969, and at the last minute rewrites it. The details up to the climax are all presented honestly, mixed with the fictional story of the declining career of Rick Dalton, but then there is a sharp right turn. Most of his work before this could be classified as revenge film cinema, and this will neatly fit into that classification.

The last fifteen minutes of the movie made everything that was overly long and unfocused in the first two hours irrelevant. Maybe the foreplay was inelegant and slow. It does not matter when the climax is so satisfying that you want to stand up and cheer even though you are witnessing a violent fiction. We want the scum that the Manson Family was, to get the retribution that they so richly deserve and society has denied. We want the sweet Sharon Tate and her innocent friends to be spared from the gruesome history we know exists. We want Rick Dalton to emerge from the crumbling Hollywood system that is taking down his career with some dignity and the hope that things will be better. And we want all of that with the signature overkill that Tarantino employs in most of his movies. This is not a genre take off like Django or Kill Bill and DeathProof. This is an original film that uses our willingness to suspend disbelief to get a result that we dream would be the truth.

I’m going back to see this again on Friday, and I plan on posting a second version of this review in video form. In that I will get into the technical pleasures of the movie and the historical context that made it so enticing for me. For now I will simply say that the movie turns what might have been a disappointment into a triumph. It’s a great magic trick, but it does take a while to play out.

Allied

This movie feels really old fashioned and stilted. Usually a Robert Zemekis film is dynamic and the performances are energetic. The two quite attractive stars are mostly just being attractive and it frequently feels like they are play acting instead of acting acting. I am having a hard time putting my finger on it, but this film feels like a misfire to me. Maybe it would have been more intriguing if the premise of the film were not given up in the trailers, and instead we were allowed to find the drama on our own. Instead, I felt like I was watching for clues and waiting for a tell as the story played ourt.

So may shortcuts in story are necessary to keep a film going, but there are really a lot of steps missing in the opening of the film. Brad Pitt puts on his Paul Henreid white suit and traipses around Casablanca looking for the letters of transit. No wait, that’s a different and much better film. Instead he acts surly toward his contacts and disregards his own personal rules when operating behind enemy lines. The most attractive woman in the country is his implanted contact, and together they plot an act of terror that in war time counts as espionage activity. It requires a brutal disregard of emotions, except of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walked into his. Whoops, slipped again. In truth, nothing will bring characters with no common background together quicker than participating in an assassination.

The contrivances in the first part of the film that are designed to sell Pitt and Marion Cotillard as a couple are cute but don’t really make sense since her husband really is supposed to be a stranger to the city. Their romantic clutch in the car in the desert reminded me so much of that moment when she pulled the gun on him and demanded the letters of transit for her husband, damn, I keep slipping. The next thing you know they escape French Morocco and he awaits her arrival in Paris, I mean London.

 

A montage of events come by in a blur, including the birth of their child in the midst of a blitz that sees her delivering on the street while all around are being bombed. It is perhaps the second corniest moment in the film, and we are expected to accept it without much preparation or set up, it just happens. When the turn that was revealed from the very first trailer arrives, we get a sequence of events that is too cliched to believe. Pitt disobeys orders and conducts his own investigation. Peter Lorre shows up at a party at their house and begs for Pitt to hide him, no, sorry again, a guy who mysteriously sells jewellery to lonely housewives during the war, appears along with every horny couple in London looking for a place to shag. Pitt chases down leads in a reckless manner, including his own expedition into Nazi occupied France where Captain Renault lies for him to the German High Command. No, that’s not right, a local French policeman sells the resistance out to the Nazis and a battle occurs where our hero single handily defeats the Germans, before he flies back to England on a plane he commandeered from the Royal Air Force and managed to get to the Continent and back on without stirring any anti-aircraft fire.

True love triumphs in the end as the situation is resolved. I have done the best that I can to avoid spoilers but I will say that Boogie and Claude Raines do not walk off into a beautiful friendship. Instead another pair walks off into the future with the aura of love hanging over them. Maybe I make it sound like I did not like this film. I liked it well enough but not well enough to suggest that anyone else bother to see it. I frequently have low standards when it comes to romantic-WWII movies and desert intrigue. My guess is most of you do not.

Thelma and Louise 25th Anniversary Screening

At some point before this movie opened, I saw a trailer and both Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis were in a convertible with guns in their hands. At that point, without knowing anything further, I was in. The movie turned out to be a landmark Ridley Scott film that created a media sensation that kept people talking most of the summer. It was nominated for six Academy Awards (though not Best Picture) including nods for the two stars and the director. The end of the film was iconic and much parodied and it still packs a punch today. Although it is a road picture, it also subverts a lot of the traditions of such film stories.

I understand how it is seen as a feminist picture. The subject of how men relate to women in contrast to the way women relate to each other is explored in several interesting ways. Thelma’s husband Darreyl, played by an excellent Christopher McDonald, is a possessive  but disengaged spouse. He sees only what his wife can do for him or how she effects the way he will be seen. Harlan and J.D. are both exploiters of women. One might be less violent and more polite than the other, but his perception of them is the same, they are target rich environments. Jimmy, a breakout role for Michael Madsen, and Detective Slocum, the surprisingly sympathetic Harvey Keitel , both want to help the women in their crisis but have difficulty understanding why they are being shut out in very different ways. [The next year they would be antagonists Mr. White and Mr. Blonde].

Sarandon is the older more mature of the two friends, and she is the one who is most wounded at the start but we never see it. Louise is a walking functioning example of PTSD. As we get hints about events in her past, her motivations and perceptions become more understandable to us. Legal or not, her actions that start the two off as fugitives would be applauded by most in the audience. Thelma is a tougher specimen to examine. She is all contradictions. She starts off timid, then becomes liberated, and then near catatonic. She says it best towards the end of the movie:

Thelma: “But, umm, I don’t know, you know, something’s, like, crossed over in me and I can’t go back, I mean I just couldn’t live.”

 

At some point the empowerment of the two women overwhelms their sense of proportion. The patterns that preceded their adventures become paths they can’t avoid. Louise is blinded by her past and Thelma is resentful of it. When people complain about the end of the film, they need to keep that in mind.  Thelma starts her rebellion and freedom from Darryl by simply not asking his permission. Like a teenager, she overdose the vices, drinking to excess, smoking, unencumbered sex and finally robbery. She is acting out against the father figures she sees in her life, especially the unpleasant spouse she has been trapped with. Louise runs because she has been conditioned to do so. She runs from the man who loves her, from the sympathetic police officer that wants to keep her from being killed and mostly she runs from her own past.

There is a star making turn by Brad Pitt in the film. If ever there was an example of lightning striking a career, this is it. He is all charm and hot looks and that is what blinds Thelma to his faults. Louise was suspicious from the beginning but she is that way with nearly everyone. Both women share the lead in making decisions at different points in the film. It’s not important which one made which bad choice, what is important is that they are not going to let any man choose for them. That is the subversive message of the film. I am probably blinded by not being a woman, so some of their choices seem plain stupid to me, but that did not mean I was not entertained or fascinated by these women. Twenty-five years ago, I said to my wife when the film was over, “That was a hell of a movie”. It’s still true.