‘Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood’ – A Quentin Tarantino Fairy Tale

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood movie poster

Quentin Tarantino once said he did not have an “Age of Innocence” in him like Martin Scorsese did, but after watching his 9th film “Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood,” I think he may be mistaken. Yes, it does have an R-rating like and features some truly brutal moments of violence where faces are literally pounded in, but this is largely a loving tribute to the Hollywood of the 1960’s and of the actors and filmmakers which inhabited it. Considering Tarantino’s attention to detail and his fetish for any kind of artifact from this era, I have no doubt he would have loved to have been a filmmaker back then if he could.

Tarantino and his longtime cinematographer Robert Richardson transport us back to the Hollywood of 1969 where we meet Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), an actor and former star of a “Wanted Dead or Alive”-like television series called “Bounty Law.” After having a conversation with his agent Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino, more restrained than usual), he comes to see how washed up his career has become as he is reduced to doing guest spots as the villain on various television shows. The only person he can talk to about his troubles is his best friend and stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) who is always around to have a drink with and drive him around town as Rick has had one DUI too many.

“Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood” is kind of like a Robert Altman film in that it doesn’t have a straightforward plot. Instead, it acts as a day in the life story as we watch Rick Dalton try to move on with his acting career as an important decision hangs over him, whether or not to move to Italy where he can star in low budget spaghetti westerns. When the story isn’t focused on him, it focuses on Cliff who seems content to live in a trailer out in Van Nuys with his dog who is a bit annoyed at him for serving him the kind of dog food which slides out of its steel can as if it were pure slime.

The only thing Rick seems fairly excited about these days is the fact Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate now live next door to him in the Hollywood Hills. But looming in the background is Charlie Manson and his cult of followers who look at first to be harmless hippies, but they later reveal themselves to be devoted to him in a most unhealthy way. Those of us who are familiar with history, and who have a deep respect for historical facts, know Sharon Tate and others were murdered by Manson’s followers, and that this shocking act all but ended the era of love and peace irreparably. But as I watched this film, I began to wonder if Tarantino would stay true to history, or if he would play around with it as he did in “Inglourious Basterds.” Whatever the case, the presence of Manson and his cult cast an ominous shadow over the proceedings, so we know the end of this story will not be the least bit pretty.

Watching “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” reminded me of how much I love it when a filmmaker sucks us right into another time and place to where we don’t doubt the accuracy and attention to detail. Cameron Crowe did this with “Almost Famous,” Paul Thomas Anderson did wonders with the 70’s and 80’s in “Boogie Nights,” and Tarantino does the same as he brings us right back to 1969 with wonderful abandon. All the famous landmarks of Hollywood are here including the Cinerama Dome, Musso & Frank Grill, El Coyote Restaurant and the classic movie theaters located in Westwood. New Beverly Cinema can be seen from a distance as it is shown having a premiere for an adult film, and this was back when it was a porno theater.

This attention to detail also includes the kind of beer these characters drank, the type of books they read, television antennas and cars. This was back in a time when people smoked an endless number of cigarettes, drove and sat in cars without having to wear seatbelts, and when love and peace was in the air even as wars were being waged overseas.

It is great fun to see DiCaprio in this kind of role after seeing him be so serious in “The Revenant,” a movie which earned him the Oscar he should have received for “The Wolf of Wall Street.” He’s a gas here as he makes Rick Dalton into a study of desperation as he struggles to maintain what’s left of his image and berate himself while alone in his trailer. The scene he has with a child actress played by the wonderful Julia Butters is a special highlight as she shows him the kind of innocence and love of acting he once had before life, alcohol and a corrupted world view clouded his perception.

As I have said in the past, I love it when Pitt gets down and dirty in a role, and he does just this as Cliff Booth. In addition to being Rick’s stunt double, he is also a Vietnam veteran, and the violence he inflicts on others who wrong him can be described at the very least as punishing. Pitt also proves to be as funny as DiCaprio from scene to scene, and he has a classic scene opposite Mike Moh who is pitch perfect as Bruce Lee in which I saw something I never thought I would see or believe, someone getting the best of Bruce Lee.

But one performance I really need to single out here is Margot Robbie’s as Sharon Tate. While at the Cannes Film Festival, someone asked Tarantino why he didn’t give Robbie the same amount of dialogue he gave DiCaprio and Pitt. I don’t remember who asked this question, but whoever it was, they completely missed the point. It’s not always dialogue which aids a performance. Sometimes it’s just a look or an attitude, and Robbie gives off a look or two which is more than enough to capture the essence of Sharon Tate as well as her beguiling innocence.

Tate has long been relegated to history as one of the Manson family’s murder victims, but she deserves to be known for much more. As Robbie sits in a Westwood movie theater watching a movie Tate co-starred in, we are reminded of a talent which was taken away from this world far too soon, and it makes me want to check out everything Tate ever appeared in. Robie does a fantastic job of reminding us how fun it is to see ourselves, let alone our name, on the silver screen as others look on, unaware of who is sitting next to them in the audience, and she is as radiant as Tate was in her far too brief lifetime.

There are so many familiar actors worth singling out here, but some of them you may not see coming and I am not about to spoil any surprises this film has to offer. I will say it’s always a delight to see Kurt Russell in anything and everything, and he is great as a stunt coordinator who is not quick to warm up to Cliff. Margaret Qualley is a memorable presence as Pussycat, a member of the Manson family who does warm up to Cliff. Bruce Dern, in a role originally meant for the late Burt Reynolds, is fun to watch as George Spahn, a man whose ranch was used for many westerns and which later got used by Charlie Manson and his demented followers. And it is quite bittersweet to see the late Luke Perry as it is the last feature film he will ever appear in.

Seriously, as rough and tumble as “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” gets, it really is a love letter to a Hollywood which time will never forget. As Tarantino nears the end of his long filmmaking career (or so he says), he continues to give us one enthralling motion picture experience after another. Even if his works threaten to be undone by self-indulgence, I am glad people are thoughtful enough to give him the freedom to make what he wants to make. If Tarantino ever had it in him to give us a fairy tale, this would be it. Even as its main characters threaten to be forever swallowed up by bitterness and cynicism, there is a light of innocence which helps lead them to the next stage in their lives. And if this film is any indication, this is time in Hollywood which Tarantino wishes lasted longer than it did.

Now, as with any Tarantino film, I have to go out and buy the soundtrack and then watch it again. And one other thing, I almost didn’t recognize Timothy Olyphant. Did you? Oh yeah, and sauerkraut will never be the same.

* * * * out of * * * *

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‘Men in Black 3’ Has as Much Heart as it Does Laughs

Men in Black III poster

Ten years between sequels is almost too long for many franchises to remain relevant, but “Men in Black 3” proves to have been worth the wait. While it doesn’t quite reach the inventive heights of the original, it is easily better than the last movie which didn’t stay in the audiences’ collective consciousness for very long. This sequel has a good dose of humor, excellent casting, and is more emotional an experience than I could have expected it to be.

Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones return as MIB Agents J and K, and their relationship is as cantankerous as ever. This time they are pursuing an intergalactic criminal named Boris the Animal (Jermaine Clement) who has just escaped from a prison on the moon and prefers to be called “just Boris.” But while in pursuit, Agent K suddenly disappears and no one seems to remember J having him as a partner. The new boss, Agent O (Emma Thompson), informs J that K has been dead for forty years, and she deduces from J’s refusal to believe, as well as his sudden thirst for chocolate milk, that there has been a fracture in the space time continuum. This leads J to discover how Boris traveled back in time and K in the year 1969. Upon being made aware of how time travel does exist, and has long since been rendered illegal, J ends up going back in time to save his partner and help him do what he should have done years ago, kill Boris.

Time travel has always been a tricky plot device in science fiction movies, and it hasn’t always been used well. However, it gives “Men in Black 3” an edge as we have come to know these characters over the course of a few films, the first which came out in 1997. Seeing Smith get transported back to 1969 gives the movie endless possibilities and story lines to follow, and director Barry Sonnenfeld explores as many of them as he can.

At 106 minutes long, “Men in Black 3” is the longest movie in this franchise and certainly feels like it too. The previous entries had a more economical running time and went by quickly, but this one takes its sweet time getting started as there is a good deal of exposition for Smith to go through before he travels back to the past. But once he does, this sequel really hits its stride as he gets to be a fish out of water in a time which was not always kind to African Americans.

Smith is still great fun to watch as Agent J, constantly improvising terrific one-liners as he explains to people why an enormous fish broke out of a Chinese restaurant (his explanation for this is classic). His boundless energy people know him best for is still very much intact as he deals with situations which, in any other case, would be completely unbelievable. But Smith is smart as he doesn’t play everything for laughs, and certain revelations about his character come to light which forever change his perception of the things he has been led to believe.

Agent K as a character has always presented Jones with a welcome opportunity to have fun with the straight-laced persona he is best known for in movies like “The Fugitive.” What’s great about his performance in this sequel is how he shows the deep sadness which lingers in those eyes of K’s even while his line delivery never betrays any sort of emotion. While his appearance in “Men in Black 3” proves to be a more of a cameo than anything else, his presence is always felt even when he is not onscreen.

But the best thing about “Men in Black 3” is Josh Brolin who gives an inspired performance as the younger version of Agent K. He nails all of Jones’ mannerisms perfectly and succeeds in making the character his own. Like Jones, Brolin gives off some of the most wonderfully dry expressions and reactions which have made this character so much fun to watch from one movie to the next.

Some of the newest members to the “Men in Black” franchise include Emma Thompson as Agent O who steps in as the leader of MIB after the death of Zed (Rip Torn who played the character in the two previous MIB movies). Thompson has a brilliant moment where she has to speak in a ridiculous sounding voice, and seeing her do it with a straight face is a wonderful reminder of how brilliant an actress she is.

Bill Hader from “Saturday Night Live” also shows up here as Andy Warhol who turns out to be another MIB agent and is tired of being all artistic and stuff. It’s a small role but Hader makes the most of it and is a delight to watch as always. Alice Eve is as delectable as can be as the younger version of Agent O, and she makes the audience want her to get it on with K just so he can loosen up.

As “Men in Black 3’s” main antagonist, Jermaine Clement (best known for “Flight of The Conchords”) is terrific as an inherently dangerous alien whose main flaw is taking his nickname of Boris the Animal a little too seriously. While he doesn’t quite compare to Vincent D’Onofrio’s bug alien from the first movie, he is easily an improvement over Lara Flynn Boyle’s character from “Men in Black II” which never left much of an aftertaste. Clement infuses Boris with a dark sense of humor which keeps him from becoming like any other alien the MIB Agents have fought previously.

Sonnenfeld fills the screen with a lot of visual gags which will make you want to see “Men in Black 3” more than once. The passing of time between sequels has given planet Earth a whole new set of aliens including Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber. When it comes to going back to the 60’s, he never goes for the obvious gag. He also makes better use of man’s mission to the moon than Michael Bay ever did with “Transformers: Dark of The Moon.”

But what makes this sequel work so well is how deep it gets into the relationship between Agents J and K to where the audience comes to realize how much of a part they play in each other’s lives. For fans who have watched Smith and Jones from the beginning, seeing their relationship get defined in a whole other way makes for an especially fulfilling cinematic experience. This is especially commendable for this movie as it was reported to have begun production without a completed screenplay.

“Men in Black 3” shouldn’t work as well as it does since it’s the third movie in a franchise as filmmakers at this point are usually out of fresh ideas of where to take the action. But while it might seem best relegated to the 1990’s where it started, there is still enough energy and creative work in this movie series to keep things going for another sequel. After watching this, a “Men in Black 4” does feel like a welcome possibility.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Chappaquiddick’ Revisits a Tragedy No Kennedy Can Escape

Chappaquiddick movie poster

“They eat their wounded upstairs.”

Lieutenant Al Giardello tells Detective Frank Pembleton this on an episode of “Homicide: Life on the Street” to describe the politicians who have invited Pembleton to help them out on a delicate matter involving a congressman. So eager he is to impress his bosses, Pembleton suggests letting a police report get buried, covered up, and the Deputy Commissioner orders him to do so. But when this matter is made public to where a scandal erupts in the news, the Commissioner denies his own involvement and lets Pembleton take the fall. Pembleton has become one of the wounded as the higher ups in the department hang him out to dry, and we see what politicians will do to keep their political currency protected at all costs.

I kept thinking about this exchange while watching “Chappaquiddick” which takes us back to the year 1969 when Senator Ted Kennedy was involved in a car accident. While attempting to cross the Dike Bridge on Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts, his car went off the side and plunged into the water. Ted was able to free himself, but his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, remained trapped inside and eventually drowned. Ted failed to report this incident to the police until 10 hours after it happened, and we watch as his closest advisers look for ways to spin the story to their advantage as the scandal threatens to derail Ted’s political career and forever tarnish the image of the Kennedy family.

The car accident is presented in bits and pieces throughout because, as anyone who has been in an accident can tell you, no one remembers everything in a linear fashion. After the initial accident, the story jumps ahead to a soggy Ted Kennedy walking slowly back to the house where he, his advisers and secretaries were having a party. When his close friend Joe Gargan sees him shivering in the back of a car, Ted simply says, “I’m not going to be President.” From there, everyone goes into damage control mode as they try to get a hold of the narrative and manipulate it to where Ted will come out of this accident in one piece. But there is still a dead body in the center of this tragedy, and some in the inner circle are not about to let this fact go away.

It’s fascinating to watch the political spin machine at work in “Chappaquiddick” as this kind of press manipulation is a regular thing these days, but even back in 1969 the truth was not so easy to bend as the truth still found a way to the surface. Still, we feel the pressure of the press as Ted and company scramble to come up with an answer which will exonerate the Senator in the eyes of his constituents and America at large. There are scenes where his advisers come up with ridiculous scenarios to explain Ted’s actions, like getting a physician to explain how Ted suffered a concussion in the accident even though he isn’t given a chance to examine the senator. Then there’s the story about how Ted was put on sedatives because of his concussion, but a reporter points out how taking sedatives in this condition could easily kill him. And let’s not forget the neck brace fiasco which Ted didn’t even bother rehearsing. There was no Facebook or social media back then, but there was still enough attention paid to where Ted could not walk away from this tragedy unscathed.

At the center of “Chappaquiddick” is Jason Clarke who portrays Ted Kennedy. Many actors could have easily fallen victim to simply playing the late senator as the icon we all see him as and saddle themselves with an accent which makes them sound like Mayor Quimby from “The Simpsons.” Clarke never falls into any of those traps and instead makes Ted as human as anybody else, full of flaws and passions which at times get the best of him. It’s a wonderfully complex performance as Clarke shows how Ted worked to control how the news of this tragedy coming out while wrestling with a conscience that will not let him escape the guilt he feels. Just watch Clarke as he phones Mary’s parents to inform them of her death. It’s a heartbreaking moment, and not an easy one to pull off.

Special mention goes to Kate Mara who plays Mary Jo Kopechne. It’s a small role, but Mara makes the most of her time onscreen as she forces us to see Mary as much more than a mere historical footnote. We learn Mary was a devoted supporter of Bobby Kennedy and his values, and she desperately wants to believe Ted can deliver on the same promises Bobby made before he was killed. This makes her final onscreen moments where Kate is desperately keeping her head above water as she hopes for a miracle which never comes. Whether or not you knew of Mary Jo’s existence before this movie, Mara’s performance ensures we never forget her once we leave the theater.

Indeed, the entire cast of “Chappaquiddick” is well chosen as each actor inhabits their role with a lot of passion and energy which makes this more than the average biopic. Ed Helms and Jim Gaffigan get to break free of their comic roles here as Joe Gargan and Paul Markham, two of Ted Kennedy’s closest advisers who are desperate for him to get his story straight before he does even more damage to his image. Helms is especially worth singling out here as he makes Joe the conscience Ted desperately needs to pay attention to, and whether or not Ted does is not worth revealing here as you have to look into Helms’ eyes to see what the answer is.

One truly brilliant performance worth singling out here comes from Bruce Dern who gives an almost wordless performance as Joe Kennedy, the patriarch of this famous family. When we meet Joe, he has long since become hobbled by a stroke and aphasia, and this makes Dern’s work all the more challenging as he has to express things to the audience without the use of words. The final scene he has with Clarke is brutal as the frustrations and disappointments these two have with one another come to their breaking point.

It’s great to see Clancy Brown here as the no-nonsense Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara as he cuts through the bull to make sure the narrative runs as smoothly as possible for the incumbent senator. From the first moment he appears onscreen, the “Highlander” actor shows the audience he means business as McNamara moves quickly into damage control mode and freaks when the most thoughtless of mistakes are made by subordinates.

Olivia Thirlby also shows up here as Rachel Schiff, another loyal Kennedy secretary and close friend to Mary. It’s fascinating to watch Thirlby here as she takes Rachel from being totally devastated upon learning of her friend’s death to racing into damage control mode. Whatever you may think of her actions, Thirlby shows how devoted she is to the Kennedy family as she feels the country cannot suffer over one person’s mistake.

Also worth mentioning is Vince Tycer, a noted theater director in Connecticut, who plays David Burke, an individual known as a aide to powerful men. It’s fascinating to watch Tycer in “Chappaquiddick” as he hovers in the shadows next to Ted Kennedy and looks ready to defend the senator’s honor in any possible way. This is another character who could have been played in too broad a fashion, but Tycer plays David in a thoughtfully subtle way as this is a character who is more than willing to set aside his own thoughts and desires for something he considers to be the greater good.

“Chappaquiddick” was directed by John Curran who previously helmed such movies as “The Painted Veil” and “Tracks,” and he wrote the screenplay for Michael Winterbottom’s highly controversial “The Killer Inside Me.” Curran gives this film an underplayed feel as he wants us to see these characters not as historical figures forever defined by their public images, but as people like you and me. The more we see ourselves in these characters’ shoes, the more we get sucked into the story to where this becomes more than your average biopic or just another movie which is (sigh) “based on a true story.”

The only real problem I had with this movie was it felt a little too underdone to where an infusion of energy could have come in handy. I kind of wish Curran had livened up the proceedings at times, especially when it came to watching the walls close in on Ted. There is passion on display here, but that passion could have been stronger in retrospect.

Regardless, “Chappaquiddick” proves to be a fascinating look into the broad scope of political power and at the life of a man born into privilege who uses it to escape a harsh punishment with his career mostly intact. Ted did go on to become the “Lion of the Senate” as he fought long and hard for social justice and universal health care, but I left this movie wondering if his actions were taken to atone for his part in Mary Jo’s death. In the eyes of many Americans, he earned his forgiveness, but a closeup of Clarke’s eyes in this movie’s final moments suggests Ted never fully forgave himself. Did he truly earn a redemption in the years following this accident? We may never truly know, and this makes “Chappaquiddick” especially haunting.

* * * ½ out of * * * *