Movie Review: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

“I’ve got a flamethrower in my toolshed.” – Rick Dalton

Quentin Tarantino’s new film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, opened three nights ago at my local multiplex. As regular readers of this blog can attest, I’ve been an unabashed fan of Tarantino’s work ever since Pulp Fiction was released twenty-five years ago, and have proclaimed more than once that his first movie, Reservoir Dogs, was the best first movie since John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon. I also thought that Jackie Brown, the two Kill Bill movies, and Death Proof were unqualified successes. Beginning with Inglourious Basterds, however, I began to have reservations about Tarantino, reservations which increased with Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight. This is not to say that those two films don’t have a lot going for them, they do, but it seemed to me that in both of them, Tarantino fell victim to the siren song of commercialism, and in his desire to put butts in the seats, so to speak, relaxed his artistic standards. In my review of Django, I wrote, “I would like to see Tarantino return to the more balanced approach of his earlier work, in which spectacle had no part, and violence, while integral to the lives of his characters, was not the film’s reason for being.”

I’m happy to report that in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino has taken a significant step in that direction. This is primarily a story about Hollywood in the late ’60’s, and about two men: Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a former TV star whose acting career appears to be in a death spiral, and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Dalton’s longtime friend and stunt double. It also deals with the Charles Manson clan, and with actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), who lives with her husband, film director Roman Polanski, in the house next to Dalton’s in Beverly Hills.

Here, just to give you a taste of the movie, is the trailer for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

It has to be said that in this movie, Tarantino once again indulges a writer’s prerogative – which we saw him exercise for the first time in Inglourious Basterds – to alter history to suit his own purposes. Tarantino is more concerned with creating entertaining and effective cinema than with historical accuracy, and I, for one, am happy to accept his right to do that. We don’t go to the movies – not a Tarantino movie, at any rate – for a history lesson.

Having said that, I have to call your attention to the extraordinary detail that Tarantino lavishes on the props and sets in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. We’ve come to expect this in a Tarantino movie, but in Once Upon a Time, he outdoes himself. He succeeds completely in re-creating the Hollywood of the late ’60’s, right down to the billboards, movie marquees, and bus stop posters.

In my review of Django Unchained, I referred to Tarantino as, “the rightful heir to Hitchcock’s title, The Master of Suspense”, and this movie provides additional evidence, if any were needed, for the legitimacy of that claim. The vast majority of the audience knows who Charles Manson was and what he and his followers did in the summer of ’69. This awareness creates a suspense in the viewer that is absolutely palpable, and which increases with each successive scene. This may well be the funniest film Tarantino has ever made, but the comic moments are so fraught with tension that you may not know whether to laugh or hold your breath. In that context, I invite you to watch carefully for the Mexican standoff without which no Tarantino film would be complete.

I can’t conclude this review without telling you of my one reservation about this Tarantino movie. I can watch a Tarantino film, with all of its violence and crude language, with a certain amount of detachment. After all, I’m used to crude language; that’s the way more and more people talk, especially in the movies. I’m also used to movie violence, and I like seeing the bad guy get the stuffing knocked out of him as much as the next person. But when a woman, especially a defenseless woman, gets the stuffing knocked out of her by a man in an unspeakably brutal way, that bothers me. I felt that way watching The Hateful Eight, and I feel that way about this movie too. I can’t help but wonder if the director is pandering to that segment of the male population that enjoys seeing a woman brutalized.

This film features exceptional performances by both Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio. I won’t be surprised if both of them receive Oscar nominations for Best Actor. All things considered, and despite its running time of two hours and forty-one minutes, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is definitely worth seeing, and if you’re like me, once may not be enough.

Derrick Robinson

Movie Review: “Pulp Fiction”

The truth is, you’re the weak, and I am the tyranny of evil men. But I’m tryin’, Ringo, I’m tryin’ real hard to be the shepherd.” – Jules Winnfield

PulpFictionThere are undoubtedly people somewhere in the world, even here in the USA, who have never seen Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.  There may even be some who, having heard about the violence and language in the movie, have made it a point not to watch it.  But no one can consider himself a true cinephile if he hasn’t seen Tarantino’s breakthrough movie from 1994, any more than if he has never seen CasablancaPsycho, or 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Pulp Fiction is just such a landmark film.  Following hard on the heels of Tarantino’s first effort, Reservoir Dogs – maybe the best first film since John Huston’s The Maltese FalconPulp Fiction premiered at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival, where it walked away with the prestigious Palme d’Or.  Later that year it was nominated for seven Academy Awards, and snagged the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, an honor that comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with Tarantino’s masterful handling of dialog.

In the twenty-plus years since, Pulp Fiction has spawned more critical analysis (and out-and-out speculation) than any other film of its era I can think of.  It is not my intention to add to that analysis here; I just want to share my enthusiasm for this movie, and to encourage anyone who hasn’t seen it to give it a try.

So, what is it about?  Briefly, Pulp Fiction tells four interrelated stories, beginning with the story of Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, two small-time thieves we meet in the first scene.  Pumpkin (Tim Roth) and Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer) have decided that robbing bars, liquor stores, and gas stations, their primary stock in trade, has become too risky.  “Restaurants, on the other hand,” theorizes Pumpkin, “you catch with their pants down.  They’re not expecting to get robbed, not as expecting anyway.”  Inspired by this reasoning, the two of them decide to rob the coffee shop where they have just finished their breakfast.

The second story concerns Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson), two loquacious denizens of L.A.’s underworld on a mission to retrieve a mysterious briefcase belonging to their boss, Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames).

Their mission is successful, after a fashion, and when they deliver the briefcase to Marsellus, we meet Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis), a boxer to whom Marsellus is offering good money to throw an upcoming fight.

Butch and his girlfriend Fabienne (Maria de Medeiros) are the main characters in Story No. 3.  They are looking forward to a major change in their fortunes, one that could mean a move to Mexico or Bora Bora.

Finally, we have the story of Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s wife.  Marsellus has asked Vincent to take his wife Mia (Uma Thurman) out for the evening while he, Marsellus, is out of town.  Despite some initial awkwardness, their dinner goes very well, as does the dance contest that follows.  But, to paraphrase the late, great Yogi Berra, “The evening ain’t over ’til it’s over.”

These four stories are woven together in masterful fashion by Tarantino, and sequenced in a way that continues to challenge viewers more than twenty years after the film’s release.  Every single member of the cast delivers a performance that stands the test of repeated viewings, but three deserve special mention: Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta are simply extraordinary, and Bruce Willis will never give a fuller, more subtle, or more credible performance.

I have some parting questions for those who have already seen Pulp Fiction.  What happens to all these people after the events of the film?  For example, what happens to Jules Winnfield after he renounces the gangster life and decides to just “walk the earth”?  Whom does he meet, and what adventures does he have?  What happens to Pumpkin and Honey Bunny after they leave the Hawthorne Grill?  If I had been in Pumpkin’s place during his confrontation with Jules, I might have felt as Jules does after the events in Brett’s apartment: like I had dodged a bullet.  Does Pumpkin feel the same need that Jules felt to take his life in a completely different direction?

I know these are unanswerable questions, but I think about them anyway, which strikes me as a testament of sorts to Tarantino’s uncanny ability to bring his characters to life.  I invite the reader to share his or her thoughts on these or other pulpy matters in the Comments section below.

Derrick Robinson

Published in: on January 31, 2016 at 5:56 pm  Comments (1)  
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Movie Review: “The Crying Game”

“A scorpion does what’s in its nature.”

crying_gameThe Crying Game was written and directed in 1992 by Neil Jordan, who had caught my attention in 1986 with his unforgettable Mona Lisa.  But why, you might ask, write about a film from 1992, and one that was so extensively reviewed at the time?

In the first place, The Crying Game is a favorite of mine.  It is one of a select group of movies that I can watch time and again with increased appreciation and new awareness of previously unnoticed subtleties.  Second, there exists a whole new generation of film-goers who may not know about The Crying Game.  If this review prompts even a few of them to watch this extraordinary film, I will be satisfied.  Note though that if I were to assign it an MPAA rating, it would be NC-17, not because I find the material objectionable, but because of the mature nature of the story.

The title The Crying Game was inspired by the song of the same name written by Geoff Stephens in 1964.  The androgynous Boy George would seem the perfect choice to sing the title track, and for those of you unfamiliar with his rendition, here is a video from French TV of Boy George performing “The Crying Game”.

The first half of the film takes place in Northern Ireland during the time of violent conflict known as the Troubles.  It opens at a carnival, where we see Jude and Jody (Miranda Richardson and Forest Whitaker) strolling hand in hand.  Jude is a local woman, and Jody, a British soldier on assignment.  The two of them have just one thing on their mind: finding someplace quiet to lie down together.  All is not what it seems, however.  No sooner do they find a secluded spot than Jody is assaulted at gunpoint by members of the Irish Republican Army who put a hood over his head, handcuff him, and lead him away.  What looked like a seduction was in fact an abduction.

Jody is taken to a remote location, where he is informed that if a high-ranking member of the IRA being held by the British is not released within three days, Jody will be shot.  During his captivity, he is guarded primarily by Fergus (Stephen Rea), an IRA volunteer.  Jody understands intuitively that his best chance of surviving lies in establishing a connection with Fergus.  He continually engages him in conversation, and at one point tells him the story of The Scorpion and the Frog.

These early scenes are fraught with danger and seasoned with gallows humor.  In the climax of the film’s first half, before the IRA’s sentence on Jody can be carried out, their hideout is attacked and destroyed by elements of the British army.  The second half of the film takes place “across the water” in London, where Fergus has fled to escape his IRA comrades.  He meets Dil (Jaye Davidson), with whom a romance begins to blossom, and Col (Jim Broadbent), the philosophical bartender at The Metro.  Ultimately, despite Fergus’ efforts to disappear, he is tracked down by his old friends in the IRA, who have sought him out for a new assignment.

The Crying Game makes an unforgettable first impression, and continues to grow on you with each viewing.  It unfolds much like life itself: it is full of unexpected twists and turns, and at one point after another, we find ourselves confronted by events we can’t control.  There is enough sadness here for three movies, but there is also kindness, pity, sacrifice, and redemption.  Perhaps more than anything else, The Crying Game is saying that we all act in accordance with our nature.  Jody is right about Fergus: he is essentially kind.  He’s right about Jude too: “Don’t leave me with her, man,” he tells Fergus. “She’s dangerous!”

Everyone connected with making The Crying Game should take pride in the finished product.  The highest praise must go to Neil Jordan for his screenplay and direction.  The Crying Game is an exceptionally intelligent movie, and challenges all manner of preconceptions.  Great credit must go to Stephen Rea for his nuanced, Oscar-nominated performance as Fergus, and to Forest Whitaker for his Jody.  From the very beginning, we feel like Jody is one of us, and share in his desperation.  As Jude, Miranda Richardson is scary!  As Jody mentions early on, Jude’s name suits her; we realize later that it is because of its similarity to Judas, the betrayer.  Finally, kudos to Jaye Davidson for an astonishing film debut and Oscar nomination, and for an exceptionally sympathetic performance as Dil.

What is it about The Crying Game that makes it so unforgettable?  I think it is this: At some point in our lives, we have all had our share of the crying game, whether we are male or female, black or white, gay or straight, or somewhere in between.

Derrick Robinson

Movie Review: “The Road Home”

The Road HomeThe Road Home is a 1999 film based on Bao Shi’s novel Remembrance.  It was directed by Zhang Yimou, who is better known in the U.S. for his martial arts films, Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004).  It was released in China in 1999 as My Father and Mother, and in the U.S. in 2001.

The Road Home tells two stories, both of which take place in the remote Chinese village of Sanhetun.  The first concerns the unexpected death of the village schoolteacher, Luo Changyu (Zheng Hao), and the determination of his widow, Zhao Di (Zhao Yulian), to have her husband’s body transported from the provincial hospital where he died back to Sanhetun in the traditional way – by foot – for burial.  As the mayor explains to the couple’s son, Luo Yusheng (Sun Honglei), “Your mother doesn’t want to use a car.  She wants your father to be carried back.  She wants the coffin brought back on foot so your father won’t forget his way home.  It’s an old tradition, a superstition.”

It also tells – in flashback – the story of the courtship of Luo Changyu and Zhao Di forty years before, in 1958, a time of great political and cultural upheaval in China.  Luo was a new schoolteacher fresh from the city, and Zhao Di – played to perfection by the luminous Zhang Ziyi – was a young woman of eighteen living at home with her mother.  The story of their courtship is simple and timeless, and according to their son’s narration, has assumed legendary status in their village.

It is a story that, like much of Zhang Yimou’s work – I am thinking particularly of Not One Less – speaks directly to the heart.  Zhang understands as well as anyone that great cinema is not a matter of spectacle and special effects, but of finding and exploring situations in which the audience can identify with the characters.  Who among us doesn’t remember being young and in love, and the pain of being parted.  There is no spectacle in The Road Home, and no special effects either, just a beautiful Chinese girl with unruly pigtails and piercing black eyes, whose beauty of spirit stands out like her red jacket against a field of gold.

What Zhang Yimou routinely accomplishes with color has never been equaled by other directors.  His outdoor shots have the look and feel of landscape paintings.  A stand of birch trees in autumn, the wind blowing across a field of grain – one image after another takes my breath away.  Has any other director ever given us such a feast for the eye?  And not just in outdoor shots!  A bucket of water has never looked (or sounded!) so refreshing, nor mushroom dumplings so delectable.

In Chinese with English subtitles, The Road Home is perfectly suitable for family viewing.  It occupies a place of honor on my personal short list of favorite films.  Like a beloved fairy tale or a story told by your grandfather by the fireside on a winter’s night, it casts a spell that may never be broken.

Derrick Robinson

Published in: on June 30, 2014 at 8:21 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Movie Review: “Groundhog Day”

“What if there is no tomorrow?  There wasn’t one today.”

groundhog_day“Groundhog Day” is a 1993 movie that asks the question, “What would you do if you were stuck in one place, and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?”  It was based on a story by Danny Rubin, directed by Harold Ramis and stars Bill Murray as Phil Connors, a weatherman for WPBH-TV in Pittsburgh, Pa., and Andie McDowell as Rita, his new producer.

It is February 1st, the day before Groundhog Day.  Immediately following the five o’clock news and weather, Phil and Rita and their cameraman Larry (Chris Elliot) drive from Pittsburgh to Punxsutawney to cover that town’s annual Groundhog Day celebration.  Next day, after taping their report, they head back to Pittsburgh but are halted by an unexpected blizzard and forced to return to Punxsutawney.  The following morning, for the second day in a row, Phil wakes up at six o’clock to the sound of Sonny and Cher singing, “I’ve Got You, Babe” on the radio.  (Not a bad choice, certainly, but wouldn’t “Yesterday Once More” by the Carpenters have been perfect?)  He soon realizes that he is reliving the previous day, as if it had never happened.

By day number three, Phil begins to understand that he is caught in a time loop of some kind, with no choice but to continue to relive Groundhog Day over and over.  In Ramis’ hands, this whimsical premise turns out to be a fruitful one.  Phil quickly grasps that there are no lasting consequences to anything he does, and that, no matter what, he will wake up the next morning and it will be Groundhog Day all over again.  Watching his repeated, futile attempts to break out of the time loop, I was reminded of Bob Dylan’s “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”:

Here I sit so patiently
Waiting to find out what price
You have to pay to get out of
Going through all these things twice.

In these early scenes, we see clearly that Phil is a first-class jerk, arrogant, self-centered, and rude.  When asked, “What are you doing for dinner?” he replies, “Something else.”  He refers to the people of Punxsutawney as morons and hicks, and is not above using to his advantage the knowledge he has gained from having experienced this day many times before: to seduce the locals and rob an armored car, for example.

His attempts to charm the lovely Rita, however, seem doomed to failure.  “I know you’re egocentric,” she tells him.  “It’s your defining characteristic.”  She even recites from “My Native Land” by Sir Walter Scott:

…The wretch, concentred all in self,
Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
And, doubly dying, shall go down
To the vile dust, from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonour’d, and unsung.

Being himself is getting Phil nowhere – literally – not with Rita and not out of the time loop either.  He finally comes to realize that Rita is worth trying to change for, and watching him make the effort, I was reminded of a quotation by George Eliot: “It is never too late to be what you might have been.”

Bill Murray and Andie McDowell are perfect in the lead roles, and the supporting cast is first-rate. With Bill Murray, there always seems to be an unspoken, ironic sub-text, some private joke, while Andie McDowell, on the other hand, is the soul of sincerity.

“Groundhog Day” is the ideal date night movie: It is romantic, yet projects a rare, mischievous kind of humor.  It deals with a question we have all asked ourselves:  “If I had my life to live over again, what would I do differently?” except that in this case, the question is, “If I had one day – today – to live over again, what would I do differently?”  Phil’s answer turns out to be the same as many of ours: I would try to be kinder.

Derrick Robinson

Published in: on September 30, 2013 at 8:01 pm  Comments (3)  
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Movie Review: “Django Unchained”

Django UnchainedSet in the pre-Civil War south, “Django Unchained” tells the story of the friendship that develops between a bounty hunter, King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), and a slave, Django Freeman (Jamie Foxx), and their mission to find and free Django’s wife Hilde (Kerry Washington), one of the many slaves belonging to plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).  It was written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, who in 2007 noted perceptively that American films have not dealt sufficiently with slavery because Americans are ashamed of that era.

“Django Unchained” is Tarantino’s attempt to remedy that failure, and there is much to admire in it.  Foremost is Tarantino’s unsurpassed ability to bring his characters to life.  Throughout his career, Tarantino has given us unforgettable characters like Mr. Blonde in “Reservoir Dogs”, Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield in “Pulp Fiction”, and O-Ren Ishii in “Kill Bill”, characters that, while larger than life, are still totally believable.  Schultz, Django, and Candie deserve to stand with the very best of his creations.

The two keys to their believability are the strength of the actors’ performances and the verisimilitude of Tarantino’s dialog.  In “Django”, we have memorable performances from just about everyone.  Jamie Foxx can convey as much with his eyes alone as other actors do with an entire paragraph of dialog.  Christoph Waltz, who was so impressive in “Inglourious Basterds”, demonstrates here an absolutely impeccable sense of timing, and Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance as the despicable Calvin Candie is completely convincing.  All three deserve Oscar nominations for Best Actor.

Similarly, Tarantino deserves great credit for both his screenplay and direction.  As a screenwriter, he is an acknowledged virtuoso; his dialog combines the realism of a documentary with uncommon literary merit.  As a director, well, when all the acting is outstanding, you have to give a lot of credit to the director.  Furthermore, Tarantino understands as well as anyone how to pace his movies to best effect.  In his best scenes, he allows the suspense to build in a seemingly leisurely way until it reaches an almost unbearable pitch.  Though the films of Tarantino and Alfred Hitchcock could hardly be more different, Tarantino, in my opinion, is the rightful heir to Hitchcock’s title, The Master of Suspense.  If you’re not convinced, I refer you to the opening scene in “Inglourious Basterds” for proof.

In addition, “Django” features breathtaking cinematography, costuming that is a feast for the eye, and an attention to detail that is unique to Tarantino.  There is even a variation of the Mexican standoff without which no Tarantino movie would be complete.

As much as there is about “Django Unchained” to admire, however, it fails to rise to the standard that Tarantino himself established in his previous movies.  To begin with, it is uncharacteristically heavy-handed.  Its excesses range from the surprisingly unsubtle – as, for example, when the camera lingers overlong on the scarred backs of the slaves during the opening credits – to the unspeakably brutal – as when two slaves wage a fight to the death for nothing more than the amusement of their owners, or when a cowed and helpless slave is torn to pieces by vicious dogs.

One has to wonder what such heavy-handedness is doing in a Tarantino film.  The judgment and taste he brought to his early movies were above reproach.  One possible answer is that he is so passionate about his subject that his good judgment deserted him at points.  He lost sight of the fact that, by continually shocking us, he risked leaving us numb to the very sensations he wanted us to feel.  How much more effective might it have been if he had left more to our imagination?  My feeling is, he would have left us with mental images that would have lasted long after repeated shocks to our system have worn off.

I expect to see bloodshed at a Tarantino movie.  One of the hallmarks of his movies has always been his stylized portrayal of violence.  In “Django Unchained”, however, he goes too far.  We have one example after another of great gouts of blood spurting from the maimed bodies of the dead and dying.  Did Tarantino imagine that repetition would heighten the cumulative effect of these scenes?  In fact, at some point they begin to lose their impact, and we simply long to get on with the story.

Another objection:  Tarantino is concerned, and rightfully so, with historic accuracy, and  I have no doubt that the horrors and atrocities of the slave era are presented faithfully.  I was surprised that his insistence upon historic accuracy didn’t extend to his characters’ language, which is often anachronistic.  I can find no evidence that the word “motherfucker” was ever used as early as 1858.  Neither did people use expressions like, “Get her ass out of there.”

With the exceptions of Jim Croce’s “I’ve Got a Name” and Richie Havens’ “Freedom”, I was less than impressed with the music Tarantino chose for “Django”.  Considering his success in choosing music for his previous movies, this was a particular disappointment.

My biggest objection to “Django” is the extent to which Tarantino makes use of spectacle and cheap thrills.  This continues a trend in his movies that began with “Kill Bill, Volume 1”, but I want to emphasize that I loved every frame of “Kill Bill”.  I didn’t object to the cheap thrills there because “Kill Bill” is a samurai movie, and makes no pretense of being anything else.  You expect cheap thrills in a samurai movie.  I didn’t object to the cheap thrills in “Death Proof” either, because it was unabashedly a B-movie, and in my opinion, the best of its kind.  My first real reservations about Tarantino had to do with “Inglourious Basterds” because there, for the first time, I felt that he was using violence more for its shock value than as an integral plot device.

Although “Django” shares many things in common with “Kill Bill”, particularly the superhero stature of the two main characters, it is intrinsically different from the earlier film in that “Django” is meant to be taken seriously.  Its moments of comic relief notwithstanding, the nature of its subject, the unblinking realism of many of its parts, and the sense of horror and pity it evokes in the viewer all make this abundantly clear.  Yet time and again, Tarantino allows his need to give the viewer a visceral jolt to trump his artistic purpose.  I would like to see him return to the more balanced approach of his earlier work, in which spectacle had no part, and violence, while integral to the lives of his characters, was not the film’s reason for being.

Derrick Robinson