Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

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Quentin Tarantino delivers one of the most entertaining movies I’ve seen in a long time with Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. Speaking of long times, the film runs 2:45 but is worth almost every minute of it.

SPOILER ALERT! There are NO SPOILERS in this review. But beware of social media content, word-of-mouth and even unscrupulous reviewers who might tell too much about this buzzworthy movie.

Los Angeles, 1969. Or, as iconic radio station 93/KHJ calls it, Boss Angeles. The city looks great as classic cars tuned to AM radios playing classic pop tunes drive down boulevards with theater marquees touting late-60s movies.

Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a TV/movie star whose career is at a turning point. Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is his stuntman and buddy. Leo is terrific. Brad is also at his charming best. Both actors benefit from being gifted with great roles and story lines from QT.

Dalton has a gorgeous home in the hills above Benedict Canyon. Booth lives in a trailer in the valley. The home just above Dalton’s is rented by Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha).

In February 1969, Hollywood dealmaker Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino) suggests to Dalton that he go to Italy and make movies there that could reignite his fading star. He does. The film then skips ahead to August 1969 when Dalton returns to LA for the film’s climax.

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood contains scene after scene that bring true movie fan pleasure. Cliff’s fight with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh). Rick’s conversation with child actor Trudi (Julia Butters). Sharon’s watching herself on screen with a movie house audience. The clips from Rick’s TV show Bounty Law and his movies. A party at the Playboy Mansion where Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) explains the relationship between Tate, Polanski and Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch).

Other performances in the film that merit mention: Kurt Russell as stuntman Randy (he’s also the film’s narrator), Margaret Qualley as hippie chick and Manson family member Pussycat, Nicholas Hammond as Sam Wanamaker and Dakota Fanning as Squeaky Fromme.

Gotta love the soundtrack! Treat Her Right by Roy Head, Good Thing by Paul Revere and the Raiders, Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show by Neil Diamond, Snoopy Versus The Red Baron by the Royal Guardsmen, Hush by Deep Purple, Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man by Bob Seger, among many others.

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is an absolute treat that should not be missed. Thank you, QT. Thank you, Leo.

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The Revenant

The Revenant is a tour de force. For Leonardo DiCaprio. And for director/co-writer Alejandro Inarritu. Awards are coming. Maybe, just maybe, a best actor nod for LD.

Leo’s character Hugh Glass is part of a group of hunter/trappers who, nearly two centuries ago, gather pelts in the wilderness of western America. Following a violent attack by Indians, the men escape downriver on a raft.

As they continue their journey on land, a bear attacks Glass. A big bear. The episode is brutally depicted. With help from his mixed race son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), Glass survives. Soon he is left to die by Glass’s partner John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) who has killed Hawk. But he’s not quite dead.

Despite having limited movement and limited resources, Glass begins the long journey back to the fur company’s headquarters. His adventure is grueling, but the survival instinct is strong. A fortunate encounter with an Indian who provides food and temporary shelter provides hope. The goal is to stay alive and to extract revenge.

A revenant is one who returns after death or a long absence. Not long after company leader Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) is told by Fitzgerald that Glass has died, Henry is shocked to learn Glass is still alive. As is Fitzgerald!

Inarritu, who won the directing Oscar last year for Birdman, is a true cinematic artist. His visuals include gorgeous vistas of sky and unspoiled frontier, contrasted with horrifying images of physically damaged humans and animals. His lingering extreme close-ups are effective in revealing the pain of the central characters. His presentation of a dream Glass has about his son is heartbreaking.

And that soundtrack! It is stirring and relentless, utilizing drums that recall the Birdman soundtrack along with full orchestrations that underline the tense drama.

Because of its grisly content (including the grizzly content), The Revenant may not be for everyone. But if you can handle the violence and the gore, you’ll be rewarded with a memorable film experience. And you might even see an Oscar-winning acting performance from Leo!

 

 

 

The Wolf of Wall Street

Jordan Belfort is the 21st century Charles Foster Kane. He is one of the most over-the-top, outsize movie characters in years. Kane made his fame as a newspaper publisher; Belfort, as a rules-bending stockbroker. Both relish influence, control, riches and a lavish lifestyle. Both are fitting archetypes of their eras.

The Wolf of Wall Street is one of 2013’s best movies. In director Martin Scorcese’s vast film canon, this is one of his most memorable and most entertaining efforts.

Leonardo DiCaprio takes this juicy role handed him by Scorcese and milks it for all it’s worth. Sex and drugs inspire Belfort to earn ridiculous amounts of money. But he is a man who can’t be satisfied: the more sex, drugs and money he gets, the more he wants.

Belfort (DiCaprio) is the dominating centerpiece of this excellent movie, but his partners in crime complement his greed and debauchery. Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) is Belfort’s top sideman in scamming and in living the high life. The cast includes Rob Reiner as Belfort’s dad, Jean Dujardin (of The Artist fame) as a Swiss banker and Mathew McConaughey as one of Belfort’s early mentors.

The film is based on the books of real life stockbroker Jordan Belfort, who has written about his reckless, risky behavior. Considering that Belfort was under the influences of cocaine, Quaaludes and booze much of the time, his memories of what happened may be a bit spotty.

Whether the tall tales he writes regarding his exploits are completely true does not really matter. The story we see on the screen is big, loud, outrageous and entertaining. TWOWS is not a movie to be taken totally seriously, though it should be seen by anyone who buys stocks through a stockbroker. The movie’s narrative is obviously filled with exaggeration and hyperbole, but that only makes it more entertaining.

Special note: The Wolf of Wall Street contains a large amount of graphic nudity and sexual content, much of which may be shocking to see in a mainstream Hollywood film at your multiplex. But most of the sexual content is not of an erotic nature, and some of it provides many of TWOWS’s funny and OMG moments.

As Belfort lived his life at full speed ahead, so does Scorcese in his telling of the story. The Wolf of Wall Street is a 3-hour movie and, except for a few respites, it unspools with compelling episode after compelling episode.

The Wolf of Wall Street should be in the running for multiple Oscar nominations. Best actor, best director and best movie are good possibilities. Brace yourself and enjoy this amazing, outrageous—and maybe even partly true—story.

The Great Gatsby

Director Baz Luhrman’s version of The Great Gatsby is, above all, great storytelling. Yes, it has moments of sensory overload, but Luhrman and his cast also slow things down to let us get to know the characters in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story of life in the early 1920’s, aka the Jazz Age.

With some characters, motivations are obvious. With others, the character’s needs and wants are more gradually revealed. One person leaving a Gatsby screening observed that the casting of the key players was almost perfect.

Leonardo DiCaprio, in a performance that’s among his best, plays the title role and keeps Gatsby initially mysterious. Tobey Maguire is also a standout as Nick Carraway, the narrator of the book and movie, a callow Midwesterner who is awestruck by what he experiences in New York. Cary Mulligan captures Daisy Buchanan’s grace and charm, as well as some of her less savory qualities. Another impressive player is Joel Edgerton as the impetuous Tom Buchanan, who reveals all of his character’s anger and resentments. In a small role, Isla Fisher shines as Myrtle Wilson.

Trailers for Gatsby and Luhrman’s reputation for bombast may have set the bar high for those anticipating a loud and splashy, over-the-top production. Indeed, a couple of the parties at Gatsby’s mansion are mind-blowers. And the fireworks scene, accompanied by Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, is jaw-droppingly spectacular.

Luhrman loves the fast fly-in shots and so do I. (They’re like zoom-ins, but the feeling is of the camera’s moving.) His bookending the film with the black and white vintage look titles is clever, but not quite as clever as the titles sequences seen two months ago for Oz the Great and Powerful.

Those who hold Fitzgerald’s novel in high esteem will appreciate the filmmaker’s respect for Fitzgerald’s text. Those who rolled their eyes upon hearing that the movie would use contemporary music in its soundtrack will find that most of the selections work in harmony with the film’s events. Lana Del Rey’s Young and Beautiful is particularly memorable.

The Great Gatsby is a classic novel, one that’s taught at schools and colleges. Transferring such a tale to film is not easy. Painting a portrait of the characters that’s true to the printed work and including major plot elements requires a variety of skills. Those skills are evident here, particularly in the time management of the story.

My only qualms: I thought Gatsby’s home was substantially grander in the movie than I’d imagined from the book. Also, I pictured Gatsby to have a more weathered, rugged appearance than does DiCaprio, who looks fit and healthy.

It’s notable that The Great Gatsby is rated PG-13. Hats off to Luhrman for making a great movie without a single f-word. (High school English teachers, feel free to send your students to see The Great Gatsby without fear of getting yelled at by the school board.)

The Great Gatsby is solid, with few flaws. Enjoy the story, the characters, the settings, the cars, the wardrobes. Don’t miss it, old sport!

Django Unchained

Everything you’ve heard about Django Unchained is true. Quentin Tarentino is a fearless filmmaker. And one of the things he does not fear is excess. Django Unchained is a big movie (2:45 or so) with lots going on.

Set in the antebellum South when slavery was legal, DU will touch some nerves. Is this film racially charged? Yes. Will this film generate controversy? Yes. Does this film entertain? Yes. Is it violent? Oh, yes. Is it funny? You betcha! Django Unchained is the must-see film of the Christmas season.

Christoph Waltz as King Schultz, a German dentist turned US bounty hunter, gives one of the year’s best acting performances. His character is smart, funny and, at times, sensitive. He can also ruthlessly violent. He tries to purchase Django, played by Jamie Foxx, from among a group of slaves after Django tells him he can identify the wanted killers that Schultz is seeking.

Django ends up riding alongside Schultz, who promises to help Django find his wife from whom he was separated. The two enter a small village where townsfolk are stunned to see a black man riding a horse next to a white man. They visit a plantation owned by “Big Daddy,” played by Don Johnson, where Django discovers the wanted men.

The journey to find Django’s wife takes them to Candyland, the Mississippi plantation of Calvin Candie, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. Candie is a fan of “mandingo fighting,” which pits two slaves in a bloody, bare knuckles hand-to-hand battle. At the plantation, Django and Schultz scheme to secure Djanglo’s wife Broomhilda, played by Kerry Washington, from Candie. It’s not an easy mission to accomplish, thanks to interference from Candie’s loyal house slave Stephen, played by Samuel L. Jackson.

Foxx handles the title role with effective, appropriate restraint. DiCaprio, who’ll have that baby face throughout his life, is hard to buy as a nasty bad guy. Jackson gives a killer performance as the 70-ish senior slave.

Tarantino’s over-the-top script is filled with humor and surprises but also reveals a horrifying look at American slavery. One particularly memorable shot, lasting only a second or two, shows blood splattering on cotton bolls in a field. Other depictions of brutality are more direct.

As we’ve come to expect from Tarantino, the soundtrack is a knockout, with tunes ranging from recycled Italian Spaghetti Western songs to Jim Croce’s 70’s hit “I Got a Name.”

Django Unchained will likely generate polarizing media commentary and new devotees of Quentin Tarantino and his distinctive, highly entertaining film making. Not to mention a few awards nominations, as well.