Friday, July 26, 2019

ONCE UPON A TIME...IN HOLLYWOOD: The Film Babble Blog Review

Now playing at an vintage cinema palace near you:

(Dir. Quentin Tarantino, 2019)

Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film as director contains all of the elements that moviegoers have come to expect: snappy hipster dialogue, an ultra cool soundtrack of both classic and obscure pop and soul songs, eye-popping cinematography, stylish editing, multiple shots of women’s feet, and, of course, reams of gory, in-your-face violence.

Except for a sequence in Italy, the film is mainly set in Los Angeles in the summer of 1969, in which actress Sharon Tate (the pregnant wife of filmmaker Roman Polanski), and three of her friends, were murdered by members of the Manson family.

But Tarantino’s largely concerns the friendship between the fictional cowboy star Rick Dalton (a moody Leonardo DiCaprio), and his longtime stunt double Cliff Booth (a smug Brad Pitt). Dalton was formerly the lead of a Western television series called Bounty Law, but has been reduced to playing guest star heavies on a bunch of various TV shows.

The film also follows Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) as she attends a screening of her next to last film, the Dean Martin comedy spy movie, THE WRECKING CREW, at the Bruin Theater. Meanwhile Booth picks up a hitchhiking hippy girl named Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), and takes her home to the Spaun Movie Ranch, where Charlie Manson, who doesn’t appear, and his hoard of followers reside. Booth is skeptical of the set-up as he used to work on the ranch and a visit with the ranch’s blind owner, George Ranch (Bruce Dern) doesn’t quell that.

Despite his doubting hesitation, Dalton, along with Booth travels to Italy to make several Spaghetti Westerns, and ends up marrying Italian actress Francesca Capucci (Lorenza Izzo).

When they return to Hollywood, the time of the murders approaches (times appear on the screen), and the killers approach in dark silhouettes that resemble the sinister shots of the four figures in the driveway in Jordan Peele’s US from earlier this year.

The climax is thrilling and funny in turns, but it might make the folks who found the instances of the intense, bloody, brutal action in THE HATEFUL EIGHT hard to stomach. It’s also an re-writing of history that recalls Tarantino’s sixth film, INGLORIOUS BASTERDS in its concept of wish fulfillment.

As usual, Tarantino has assembled an excellent ensemble that includes Al Pacino as producer/agent Marvin Schwarzs, Emile Hirsch as Jay Sebring, one of the victims of the murders; Timothy Olyphant as James Stacy, another 
Western actor; Dakota Fanning as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, and Kurt Russell as stunt coordinator Randy (Russell also doubles as the film’s narrator). But ultimately it's the terrific DeCaprio and Pitt whose movie this is.

ONCE UPON A TIME…is very enjoyable in stretches, but it has too many sequences in which characters just hang out (like in JACKIE BROWN, Tarantino wants us to hang out with the characters), and it has a rambling nature in which some scenes just go on and on – like the Spahn Ranch scene, for instance.

This is far from Tarantino’s greatest work, but it’s way better than his worst (meaning that it’s way superior to DEATH PROOF). With movie posters, lobby cards, and glossies covering nearly every wall, and segments from fictitious films rendered in the grainy, gritty film stock of the 
60s-70s, the auteur filmmaker’s latest shows off his love of movies. It celebrates the era in which the golden age of cinema gave way to the exploitation movies that Tarantino takes many cues from.

Its effect is mostly infectious, but it doesn’t have much to say beyond “look kids, I can still bring it as a badass basher.” That’s great and all, but it’s way too meandering to come anyway close to being a masterpiece.

More later...

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

3 Poli-Biopics I'm Finally Getting Around To

Apparently because the nation has been enraptured by politics over the last several years, Hollywood has stepped up to produce a number of films covering controversial political figures from years past. Here I’m going to take a look at three of them – in chronological order, both by the years the films were released, and the years in history the movies take place. So that means we begin with:

LBJ (Rob Reiner, 2016) 

Although it skips around through the early ‘60s, Rob Reiner’s 19th film largely concerns Lyndon B. Johnson’s experience in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination in 1963. Woody Harrelson, in heavy make-up and prosthetics, plays LBJ, who is suddenly thrust into the presidency, a position he wanted, but not under such circumstances. Harrelson’s LBJ argues with advisors (at one point while on the toilet), and Bobby Kennedy (Michael Stahl-David), and has a few tender moments with his wife Lady Bird Johnson, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, who has a fakes nose that is as pointy and down-turned as Harrelson’s prosthetic.

There are also choice turns by Richard Jenkins as the racist Senator Richard Russell, Bill Pullman as the smug, Senator Ralph Yarborough, and the dead on Jeffrey Donovan as John F. Kennedy (Donovan also played Bobby Kennedy in Clint Eastwood’s J. EDGAR). Harrelson does a admirable job as LBJ, but despite his facial embellishments he doesn’t really get lost in the Texan democrat’s persona.

Despite this, LBJ is Rob Reiner’s best film in years (maybe decades), but with its TV movie-style melodrama it’s far from essential.

CHAPPAQUIDDICK (Dir. John Curran, 2017) 

Jason Clarke (ZERO DARK THIRTY, FIRST MAN) portrays Senator Ted Kennedy in this tense treatise that depicts the 1969 (5o years ago this month) accident in which Kennedy drove his car into Poucha Pond in Chappaquiddick killing a young woman named Mary Jo Kopechne, played by Kate Mara (House of Cards, American Horror Story, THE MARTIAN). The flames of the budding scandal are fanned by the fact that Kennedy waited 10 hours before reporting the accident, and attending Kopechne's funeral, wearing a neck brace, although he wasn’t injured in the incident.

Clarke’s Kennedy grapples with his guilt versus his ambition as his lawyers, including two comic actors in serious roles - Ed Helms as Joe Gargan, and Jim Gaffigan as Paul F. Markham - who try to convince him to turn himself in. On the opposing side, his father, Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., (Bruce Dern) says to him “alibi.” Curran, whose seventh feature this is, has fashioned a historical thriller that’s compelling throughout. It’s also a devastatingly dark reminder of how much tragedy the Kennedy dynasty suffered in the ‘60s.

THE FRONT RUNNER (Dir. Jason Reitman, 2018) 

Unlike the previous two films reviewed above, this drama is about a now obscure political figure, Senator Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman), whose chances of winning the presidency in 1988 went down the tubes when his affair with model Donna Rice (Sara Paxton) was exposed by the press. The film features a lot of consultants strategizing about Hart’s campaign, and his indiscretions, while the candidate repeatedly says that it’s none of anyone’s “goddamn business!” Speaking of business, one major factor in Hart’s downfall was a photo of him taken with Rice on his lap on a yacht named “Monkey Business.”

Surprisingly this photo isn’t touched on in this film, except in a few quick mentions. I was expecting a full re-enactment, and repeated showings of it when it got leaked. This surprised me because it was one of the aspects that people (like me) who lived through the scandalous events, most remember. The film’s editing, by Stefan Grube, is often choppy, yet the film is often drawn out and dull – a good 20-30 minutes could have easily been cut out. 

Under his obvious wig, Jackman is fine as Hart, but the part is underwritten with a lot of repetitive dialogue. Maybe thats accurate to the real Hart, but it makes for some shake your head moments.

But although the movie is the weakest of the three covered in this post, it has the strongest supporting cast. Vera Farmiga plays Hart’s wife, Oletha, J.K. Simmons works it as Hart’s campaign manager, Alfred Molina portrays the Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post, Kevin Pollack briefly appears as the Miami Herald publisher, and comedian Bill Burr smarms his way through a role as a reporter. THE FRONT RUNNER doesn’t have enough to say to make it truly worthwhile, but parts of it are watchable, and at least its attempt to make a statement about tabloidism infiltrating the political system show some admirable ambition.

Post note: At one point in THE FRONT RUNNER, Alfred Molina’s Ben Bradlee says to a group of reporters: “I swear this is true. New Year’s Eve, after Jack died, Lyndon Johnson sites down with a whole bunch of us, pulls us in close and says. ‘Boys, you’re gonna see a whole lot of women coming in and out of my hotel suites. I want you to pay us the same courtesy you did Jack.”

Whether or not this is true, it’s an element that isn’t included in LBJ, reviewed above.

More later…

Tuesday, July 02, 2019

Spider-Teen’s European Vacation

Opening today at a Marvel multiplex near us all:

(Dir. Jon Watts, 2019) 

So with this sequel to SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING, we’re now at the end of Phase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

In what’s being called the epilogue to AVENGERS: ENDGAME, we catch up with Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) eight months after the events of that bloated epic.

Peter, still a high school student despite Holland being 22 when the film was shot, joins his class on a two-week summer field trip to Europe where he finds that various locations including Venice, Prague, and London are being terrorized by ginormous monsters called Elementals.

Our web-slinging protagonist is recruited by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson in his third appearance in a Marvel movie this year) to fight the Elementals with the help of Mysterio, a character from the comics, portrayed by an invested Jake Gyllenhaal wearing Roman centurion-style armor.

Peter often has to sneak away from his classmates, such as the returning Zendaya as MJ (Peter’s love interest), Jacob Batalon as Ned (Peter’s best friend), and Tony Revolori, to get caught up in overblown battles in which there’s much destruction and dizzying bombast. Between these battles, there’s some frothy rom com material where Peter competes for the affection of MJ with the douche Brad (Remy Hii from CRAZY RICH ASIANS who is over 30).

There’s also a bunch of comic moments courtesy of the also returning Martin Starr as Peter’s teacher, Marissa Tomei as Aunt May who is maybe beginning a romances with Tony Stark’s former bodyguard Happy (Jon Favreau), and a new character named Mr. Dell (J.B. Smooth).

These breezy bits of downtime are much more amusing and watchable than the action sequences surrounding them. It’s like a teen comedy that has to cut to big bursts of spectacle every five to ten minutes.

FAR FROM HOME is only intermittently fun, and way less satisfying than HOMECOMING as it has lost much of that film’s fresh feeling. The villain, Mysterio, isn’t fleshed out enough to make much of an impact, and the concept behind the Elementals isn’t very compelling either. 

However it’s a competent summer superhero movie, and a decent entry in the franchise. I just doubt I’ll remember much of it months from now, or less. But that could be said about most of the Marvel movies.

More later...