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Review Catch-Up: Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood

Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, “Once upon a time in Hollywood” is a film about several topics blended together. Yes, it’s a film about Hollywood experiencing a tumultuous evolution in its creative output at the end of the 1960’s, but it is also a film about ageing and the perspective that comes with the passage of time. It’s also about a few dastardly dirty hippies and a multitude of references to decades-old film and television shows and the actors that appeared in them. At times “Once upon a time in Hollywood” can feel like a departure from Tarantino’s earlier work in that this period-piece rumination about Hollywood at the end of an era takes a slower, almost meditative pace at times, but ask anyone who’s seen it and they can tell you that it’s definitively still a Tarantino picture.

This one centers around film star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double, and part time chauffeur, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Rick and Cliff are a fascinating duo, as Rick often plays machismo fueled leading men in westerns and war films, yet he’s obsessed with how others perceive his acting to the point of vanity. He can be soft and vulnerable when alone, depressed and weeping over a bungling of lines on a western TV show. While Cliff on the other hand seems to exude all of the qualities that Rick’s characters represent; calmness, masculinity, and violence when the need arises. Tarantino’s ninth film is happy to let you simmer pleasantly with its two lead characters for long stretches of time. It’s content to follow Cliff as he drives Rick in his creamy yellow 1966 Cadillac Coupe de Ville to his home in the Hollywood hills only then to switch to his blue, beaten-up, 1964 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia and traverse a sea of neon lights out to a small trailer behind a drive-in movie theater. These two characters, clearly, live and breathe different air- yet seem inseparable as partners in the world of cinema.

Eventually, the film’s story opens up a bit and some questionable characters take our attention. We get a glimpse of Charlie Manson (Damon Herriman) himself, but it is fleeting. We also see Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) a few times, but his sightings are almost as rare. However we do get a lot more footage of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) as she goes about her daily life. We watch her casually going to the theater to see one of her own movies, dancing to records at home, and generally being a good-hearted person. While the film takes fairly massive liberties with how the actual real-life events of the Manson family murders took place, there are a lot of accurate details filling out the world Tarantino has crafted. For example, it isn’t just Tarantino’s oft-reported obsession with women’s feet, apparently Sharon Tate was frequently barefoot and would occasionally put rubber-bands around her ankles to make it look like she was wearing sandals so she could get into restaurants. So while shots of bare feet may not be everyone’s thing, it is accurate in this case (source linked below). Tarantino simply inserted his two leads next door to the scene of the infamous crime. In “Hollywood”, Rick Dalton is the next door neighbor to Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, to which Rick plans to turn a chance meeting with the famed director into an opportunity for the, self described, washed-up actor. Beyond the residents of the Hollywood hills, this film is filled to the gills with celebrity cameos, sometimes as an influential movie mogul as with Al Pacino, other times purely as minimal side characters like Kurt Russell’s ‘Randy’ or Timothy Olyphant’s character actor side-by-side Rick Dalton’s guest appearance on the pilot episode of western show ‘Lancer‘. The dialogue here is, as always with Tarantino, very good. However it isn’t quite as punchy as say “The Hateful Eight” or “Inglorious Basterds”, but that shouldn’t turn you toward the door, it’s just a different spice added to Tarantino’s oeuvre.

By now you probably know whether or not Quentin Tarantino’s style of filmmaking is for you, but even if you don’t appreciate the filmmaker- you have to admit that his skill in the medium is ageing like a fine wine. Tarantino has been saying that he’ll put down a ten film legacy and be done with making movies, but this film itself is a great argument against that. If he doesn’t want to make more than ten films, then he has earned that and his place in Hollywood’s history, but I highly doubt someone as in love with the art of filmmaking and movies in general will ever give it up. Here’s hoping for at least a few more films from the legendary director!

Final Score: 1 Flamethrower

https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-features/manson-murders-once-upon-time-hollywood-tarantino-ending-868192/

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Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, or “Space Avengers.. Again!”

Written and directed by James Gunn once more, “The Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” brings us back into the fold of the galaxy’s most ragtag team of cackling thieves, opportunistic miscreants, and charming rogues. Proving to be Marvel’s riskiest property yet, the sequel delves deeper into the past and motivations for more of the characters while also aiming to be as filled with comedy as it is with tragedy. After all, isn’t that the age old recipe of a good story?

Set two months after the events of the first film, we find our heroes doing a job protecting powerful batteries from the onslaught of a tentacle wielding and fanged-tooth monster of inter-dimensional origins. After the beast is slain, in one of the best opening credit sequences since “Deadpool”, we’re swiftly introduced to the people of the planet Sovereign, a golden colored species that hired the team because of their well known status after the events of the first film. The people of the Sovereign are easily offended and typically issue death penalties for transgressions against them. So of course Rocket Raccoon maligns them of being considered “douchebags” offhandedly. He also steals from them, as he is wont to do. This kicks the thrust of the film into motion and we’re off! I won’t tread into spoiler territory here, but rather instead focus on what the film did right in my opinion. This is a much more character driven film than the first. That one had its moments and particular storythreads that were serviced quite well, but the sequel dives deeper, especially into characters that you would not expect to get meaningful exposition from.

There is a great effort here to build the world of the MCU’s Cosmic side, and I think this film handles that aspect exceedingly well. Not just in a sense of there being many inhabitable star systems, but even in the size ratios of spaceships. The look of this movie is a fine example of a beautifully chaotic color palette. Neon colors and vibrant hues fill the screen one moment just before another psychedelic barrage pours onto the silver screen as characters bounce across the galaxy, fire their blasters, or leap into danger with their blades drawn. I can’t understate how impressed I was with the framing and the cinematography on display, it was a visual feast to behold.

This film delivers on all fronts for me personally. The threat of the film has increased exponentially since the initial story, and they balance it all with a style of humor that is perfect for this series. Dave Bautista’s Drax has some of the very best comedic lines and jokes throughout the film, but everyone gets their fair share of comedic timing. Bradley Cooper’s Rocket Raccoon has a memorable riff on the mutinous ravager known as “Taserface”. It’s a great bit and it works on every beat. Of course Kurt Russell’s character of “Ego” is a joy to behold in his performance. If you thought it was a weird choice to have a film where two of your main characters are a wise cracking Raccoon and a Tree alien who can only communicate with a single phrase, then buckle up because this film outdoes these notions with strange but fascinating creative choices.

If you enjoyed the first Guardians, I suspect you’ll get a real kick out of the sequel. Personally, this is one of the most satisfying sequels I’ve seen from Marvel Studios and it gives me nothing but boundless hope for “Infinity War” and the rest of this universe unfolding before our eyes. Oh, and Stan Lee’s cameo for this film is a great example of the lengths the studio will go in dredging through the many many characters in their lore, I loved it, and you just may too!

Final Score: 300 songs (There’s even a Zune joke thrown in for good measure!)

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Review: The Hateful Eight, or ‘Everything you Love and Hate about Quentin Tarantino’

After troubled beginnings and much fanfare Quentin Tarantino’s eighth film, the aptly titled ‘The Hateful Eight’, has come to silver screens everywhere. Returning to the western genre once more Tarantino delivers us a truly unique flick as the renegade director gleefully indulges us in his celluloid fantasies. This does not, however, deem it a masterpiece, for it is not one. This film is many, many, other things though, and it deserves accolades for its acomplishments, but it’s also not an effort that lives up to the infamous director’s previous offerings.

‘The Hateful Eight’ follows John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) who is a bounty hunter trekking through Wyoming with the prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) during a blizzard. Along the way, they reluctantly pick up stragglers, respected rival bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), both notably connected to the Civil War on opposing sides.

On their way to Red Rock, where Domergue is set to hang and Mannix is supposed to become the new sheriff, the four seek shelter at the mountaintop stagecoach stopover Minnie’s Haberdashery. There they find that Minnie has left the business in the hands of  Bob (Demian Bichir) the Mexican stable hand so that she may visit friends on the other side of the mountain. Once inside we’re introduced to the remaining three of the Eight through The Hangman’s John Wayne inspired inspection of each. Who is trustworthy? Who is not? We are left with Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), a polite Englishman who also claims to be on his way to Red Rock, but as the new hangman of the town. The quiet and seemingly affable Joe Cage (Michael Madsen), is a cattleman/biographer headed to visit his mother. Finally we meet General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), a former Confederate leader who shared a Civil War Battlefield with Warren, an infamous and vicious Union soldier who once had a Confederate price on his head.

Let’s break it down shall we?

The Good

If you’re a film nerd you’ll find a lot to love in Tarantino’s newest entry. From how it was filmed on an Ultra Panavision 70, a 70mm panoramic format 15% wider than the conventional 35mm standard Panavision format, to the opening overture which just so happens to be a new piece by Ennio Morricone no less, Tarantino flaunts his love of old-school filmmaking here. He utilizes depth and a sense space incredibly well. His style continues to evolve in subtle ways over the years and you can see how his grand love of the old ways influences his creative choices. You might be wondering why the filmmaker chose to use the widest angle possible on a film that is confined to one location for the majority of the runtime, but he deftly moves through the given space of Minnie’s Haberdashery, the one room cabin that acts as a watering hole and waypoint on the side of a mountain in Wyoming. Strangely in this film Tarantino both matures in his filmmaking techniques, and also reverts to his more, indulgent, adolescence stained ways when concerning plot structure and story. Not to say that this film isn’t substantive, it’s a feat itself that the film nears the three hour mark and the pace is never sacrificed ultimately, for it rests on the laurels of engaging writing and committed performances.

Speaking of, the performances here are the entire reason this film works at all. If it were a less credible cast with none of the wit and vile that these hateful participants require, it would be a mess of a movie. Credit goes to the actors here for captivating us as thoroughly as they do, even while portraying themselves as indeed, hateful people, and are yet degrees of likeability higher than what one would expect given their actions and demeanors. Kurt Russell and Samuel L Jackson steal the show as rival bounty hunters in the post Civil War era, but Walton Goggins, who plays a confederate sympathizer and supposed new Sheriff of Red Rock, was a surprising standout among the talent involved. Not all of the Eight get as much screen time as others, but they all add to the bigger picture.Bruce Dern’s role in particular as a curmudgeonly confederate general after the war shines as the setting’s best embellishment. He rarely moves from the point at which we meet him, and he isn’t the main attraction by far, but he serves his purpose for the story quite well. Jennifer Jason Leigh also deserves praise for her range in villainy, from her dead eyed stares to her defiant cackling after getting elbowed in the face by Kurt Russell’s Ruth she proves to be just as captivating as the rest, if not more.

 

The Bad

This entry in QT’s legacy is a fine addition overall, but it’s runtime leaves something to be desired. At roughly three hours long the film’s length can be seriously felt when nearing the end of the flick. Needless to say, I’m no Oscar winning writer or director here, but it feels as though the film really didn’t need to be quite this long. A half hour could be cut and the story would still work.

The Ugly

This film nudges too far into excess for my palette, in terms of intention and how it plays out in the story and what that means for the tale we’re being told. Particularly one scene with Samuel L Jackson’s flashback killing of an offscreen character in a brutal and pervasive manner that divulges Tarantino’s weirdest indulgences as a storyteller.

It’s not that the ultra violent sequences are shocking because of what’s shown (and it is gruesome) but rather it is because it heavily distracts from the established tension and character building that took up the last hour of screentime, only to be thrown to the way side so quickly. I was rather invested in the first half of the film, but the second half, in my mind, undermines the entirety of the first half of the story. Who poisoned the coffee again? I sincerely cannot remember. I rather liked the mysterious banter and wit among the curious nature of the motivations of these people, are they friend or foe? I suppose the film almost demands a second viewing to better understand the picture as a whole, but for the first time in a long time, I’m not incredibly excited to see this Tarantino film again. I will. I just know I can wait until the title hits Netflix or video release.

Final Score: 3/5

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Genre Blending: Is having your cake and eating it too much of a good thing?

Recently the trailer for Kurt Russell’s new Horror-Western film “Bone Tomahawk” surfaced online and it got me thinking, is genre blending always a good thing? In recent memory Hollywood has enjoyed a resurgence of interest in Genre films within the last five to ten years, surpassed only by the eighties’ love of this previously B level form of entertainment. Now that filmmaking technology has exploded into a multitude of visual possibilities movies that would have been laughed off, or renounced as cinema “junk” are earning the most buzz and the most money. Granted there is an argument to be made among cinephiles that these movies are still flawed and to be considered the junkfood of moviedom, but I disagree. Now that there is much more interest, and notably much more money, involved in the production of these films there has generated interest in high brow talent, not just Michael Bay and his explosions. How else do you think we almost got a “Wolverine” movie directed by Darren Aronofsky?  So, in the defense of Genre movies and their continued evolution ( i.e. “Pacific Rim”) here are my top picks of genre movies that have more than one traditional genre.

Tucker and Dale Versus Evil

I figure, its nearing that time of year when things traditionally go bump in the night, so why not start with a horror movie.. that’s also a rollicking comedy. “Tucker and Dale versus Evil” is one of my favorite movies with a horror spin to it. It is a wonderful flip of the traditional “hillbillies-in-the-woods-murder-college-youth” horror movie palette. In this tale, Tucker and Dale are but two good hearted rednecks that are just trying to enjoy a fishing trip at Tucker’s new “vacation cottage”, a ramshackle hole of spiderwebs and newspaper clippings of murders happening in the area over the last few years. As chance would have it a herd of brash obnoxious college kids arrive in the area for typical shenanigans at the same time. As Tucker and Dale are fishing in the moonlight one of the girls attending this skinny dipping is startled by the good ole boys and falls into the water, knocked unconscious. This is interpreted by her friends as an act of creepy villainy. And it goes from there, amid surprising gore and hearty laughter this flick is a great case of mistaken identities in the best ways possible, chainsaws and sawmills abound. If you haven’t seen this one yet, do yourself a favor and look it up!

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Continuing the trend this next entry is admittedly less nuanced, in my opinion, than “Tucker and Dale” but nonetheless it delivers the spectacle it promises. That spectacle being Abraham Lincoln actually being a vampire killing badass. Remember, this movie came out months before Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln”, oh what a diverse year of performances depicting our sixteenth president. In this historical, and fantastical, retelling of our beloved Lincoln’s story the civil war wasn’t just a fight between the North and South, but between Yankees and the confederate undead, yes, a vampire army. If you can get past this premise and enjoy the film, then you will probably get a kick out of Lincoln swinging his, apparently trademark, silver axe like a baton, murdering hordes of filthy confederate vampires. It’s worth a watch at the very least.

Cowboys and Aliens

Some might say this movie is an example of what not to do when melding genres so obviously, but I really don’t know how you could tackle a title like this one and do any better to be honest. Personally, I quite enjoyed this flick. Directed by Jon Favreau, after the “Iron Man” films, this film not only features a stellar cast, Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, and Sam Rockwell, but delivers its tonal changes well. Favreau shot the Western heavy portions on film, on location, in traditional framing and shot sequencing. When the *spoiler* alien spaceship becomes part of the locations, the angles switch to typical sci-fi standards, the color palette even changes in these scenes as well. Now, the aliens’ motivations aren’t the most well explained, or best reasoned, but hey, I bought it within the rules and context that the film had established by that point in the film. Check it out if you haven’t seen it, it’s a fun romp through both genres, and the performances are solid.

Outlander

This movie (not the series by the same name) didn’t make a splash when it was released, but after stumbling across it a few years later I wondered why I hadn’t heard of it at the time, because I thought this to be quite the gem of a movie. Set during the Viking age in Scandinavia the movie follows a human, Jim Caviezal (Jesus from “The Passion”), from a far off (offworld that is) human colony that has followed a treacharous monster to Earth. Among the vikings are Ron Perlman and John Hurt who seem to be having fun with the material. As Caviezal’s character tracks the beast he encounters these vikings, from there you can probably surmise what happens next, the Vikings catch Caviezal, he has to earn their trust, the monster shows up to wreck stuff and kill people, then they believe him and together they hunt the intergalactic alien down. Fun stuff. As an admitted lover of anything sci-fi this movie had me from the beginning. The action is great as it happens and the pace is steady. Definitely a fun one to dig up and enjoy if you can find it, I highly recommend it for a rainy day.

There are a litany of other movies I could keep describing and saying, “go watch this!” but this is a fun collection of films that I know I loved, hopefully you will too. Some honorable mentions are the obvious Cornetto Trilogy from Edgar Wright, seriously if you haven’t seen “Shaun of the Dead”, “Hot Fuzz”, or “The World’s End” then stop what you’re doing and watch those, they are absolutely wonderful. But, I know there are a fair amount of failures out there too when it comes to messing with a blend of genres, because for every “Blazing Saddles” out there, there’s an “A Million Ways to Die in The West” to counteract it. So get out there fellow cinephiles! Challenge yourself and watch something you normally wouldn’t! You might just come across your new favorite movie. Thanks for reading!

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Monday Movie Pitch [On a Tuesday]: Expendables 4

First of all apologies for the late Movie Pitch this week, occasionally life can take precedence, and this week it did just that. Enough with the speed bumps however because this week I have a tantalizing pitch that I’ve been stewing over for quite some time now: The next iteration of “The Expendables” Franchise.

On the whole I’ve enjoyed “The Expendables” movies but as they continue the movies have an increasingly cumbersome issue with each episodic adventure. Each movie feels like just like the other but with different palettes of actors or explosive situations. It could be said that Marvel Studios films are getting somewhat into this same issue of overly consistent tone, but that’s a whole other issue in itself. As far as I’m concerned Sly and the Gang need to up the ante and change things up big time in the next movie or the franchise will die, especially given the horrific box office of last year’s third entry in the action heavy series. Granted, the numbers were particularly low because of the movie being leaked online two weeks before the release date, but any way you slice it 6 million for an opening weekend with the amount of star power involved just doesn’t add up. That’s simply bad news for everyone involved.

What I would do to revitalize the series is to play to the crowd of the audience, pitting the older action stars up against impossible odds, odds of a particular magnitude. Introduce a superhero into the mix. It’s the perfect direction for the series to reassert itself among the crowded super-powered market with a unique perspective. The trick is to cast a powerhouse in this role, somebody that’s charismatic, able to do action/CGI sequences well, and bring audiences along with him. That man should be nobody other than Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

I can already see the general outline of the plot. Act one has the Expendables sent to take out a young dictator on the world stage that has gotten unwisely bombastic with his nuclear weapon potential. North Korean assumptions can obviously be made here. Have Stallone and the team knock the palace doors down only to be out-staged by this new incredible force. They’re all out of the job after this sequence of events as the “hero” attempts to do as much as possible for humankind in eradicating war and instituting world peace. Eventually he must become either mad with power or deduce that he should be the earth’s sole leader because multiple sovereign nations will only ever result in war and discord. This is where the Expendables become important once more. After multiple countries attempt to nuke the Superman-like hero, and fail, the secret agencies that have been hiring the Expendables since day one step in and introduce some plot device or perceived weakness etc whatever they can do to trick, reason with, or kill the hero.

We could play into the otherworldly alien hero raised among humanity to save/destroy us storyline but that Superman “skin” has been used countless times as is. I prefer a “radiation/accidental act that transforms the everyday man” sort of event for this central character’s origin. For international appeal, and to make more sense for the global scale of the story, including new additions to the Expendables team from other nations would only help the formation of the group.

My top choices for additions to shake up the core team are as follows:

Jackie Chan: I’ve personally wanted JC in this franchise from the beginning since his contemporary Jet Li has had a spot on each film, small as they may have been. I shouldn’t have to explain why this would be a great deal of fun. Especially if he is against the use of guns.

Kurt Russell: Adding Kurt Russell to any movie is a wise decision in my opinion but he’s proven he’s ready to get back into the limelight with his “Furious 7” and “Hateful eight” roles and I’m sure any role they craft for him would be a blast.

Nicholas Cage: The franchise has gotten a bit ridiculous and if they want to be self aware and referential then adding in Nic Cage would be the just desserts. Especially if they need anyone to go crazy. He could be a conspiracy nut that knows everything on Dwayne Johnson’s character. Woody Harrelson would also fit this type of role… or Charlie Day, but that’s just because I love Charlie Day and will gladly advocate more roles for him.

Laurence Fishburne: The man that made Morpheus work has a certain gravitas to himself that would only help to bring balance to the team, plus he’s proven himself many times over the years for the type of work this film would likely entail.

Tom Cruise: Incredibly unlikely I know, but maybe they could squeeze an extended cameo sequence out of him similarly to how they utilized Chuck Norris in the second flick?

Charlie Hunnam: After “Pacific Rim” and “Sons of Anarchy” he could definitely be comfortable with a gun and growl, plus Stallone seems to enjoy the idea of “Young Blood” being added to the team.

Vin Diesel: Between saying “I am Groot” a hundred times and driving off of cliffs Diesel might be too busy to take on another franchise role anytime soon but no one can deny how much he could bring to the table in this sort of setting.

Idris Elba: Citing “Luther”, “Pacific Rim”, and his recurring “Thor” roles it comes to be seen that not only does Elba have a propensity for genre fair, but he’s a damn fine actor that can handle a one liner, or a monologue. Give that man a gun already!

Gerard Butler: “Shoot ’em up” alone has given this man enough action film cred to be involved in this series, let alone his glorious “300” role as King Leonidas. Give that man a sword, or a gun, or both- and let him have at it!

Chiwetel Ejiofor: I seriously doubt he would even want to take on this caliber of role, but his choice of the villain in the upcoming “Dr. Strange” film opens the conversation for more ridiculous options than the Oscar level work he’s currently being more associated with.

A few other recommendations for this film:

Make it a Hard “R” rating. All, or at least most of, the actors in the franchise come from action series where they are almost constantly killing hordes of bad guys in the process of achieving their goals, let them be who they want to be. Let the movie be what it wants to be too, going PG-13 for a wider audience only alienates the core audience that clamors for this type of movie anyways. Oh and cut the CGI blood splatter and terribly awful renderings of tanks and helicopters, we can all see how terrible it is and in the year 2015 we shouldn’t have to see blatant budget choices every time a bad guy bites the dust.

Put Stallone back in the director’s chair again. I stand by the fact that the original Expendables was the best in the series. While I enjoyed the second one there were clear losses of vision and expertise on several levels that Sly had covered in the first piece. Granted I know this series is not known for Oscar nominated performances or the world’s most stunning cinematography, but the first film excelled in areas where the sequels lacked. Having Stallone back in the saddle again might alleviate these issues and help to keep the tone and feel he wants consistent with what ends up being the wide release version.

Kill one of the main characters. They are called the Expendables after all, right? At this point in the game a death in the family, and I mean a meaningful death *SPOILERS* not what we got in two where a newcomer is introduced and killed two scenes later. It would be a good motivator for the team, but it only works emotionally for the audience if we’ve invested in the character. I nominate Dolph Lundgren’s character. He’s gone through a lot in the series and it would maker sense thematically to painfully cut that chord. Nothing against Lundgren though- he’s great.

All in all this could be a potentially huge game changer for this series if pulled off well. Obviously there needs to be a lot more thought put into Dwayne Johnson’s character to make sure he is overwhelming but not omnipotent as well as pacing issues, and having enough for the action guys to do what they do best, shoot, cut, blow up, and punches to the face! Hopefully Sly can make the next one work because I enjoy the series and love the talent involved, its because of this that I want each installment to be better than the last. That’s my movie pitch for this week!